Colombo Telegraph

Traditional Treatment

By Christopher Rezel

Christopher Rezel

It may be wishful thinking to hope Sri Lanka will get away lightly on the deadly onward march of Covid-19.

Many will be hit by the virus, in milder or serious form. 

Hopefully the majority will recover naturally as is due to happen, just as with the common cold or flu. But a percentage are slated to die, a higher percentage than that of the annual flu. 

The country has a high proportion of aged people, a segment most fated to die, particularly those with compromised physical health. 

But worldwide the young have been dying too. 

The above is the reality.

For now though the focus in Sri Lanka is on numbers. 

Like a score in a slow-going cricket match, daily notices give us numbers for those infected, the number “cured”, and the number dead. 

With bated breath the nation awaits the hard-hitting batsmen – for the expected fours and sixes.

A few journalists dare to question these official figures. Are sufficient tests being conducted? Is contact tracing sufficient? Do we have sufficient medical personnel on the job? Are such personnel suitably suited and equipped? What about those who are asymptomatic? What about the available number of ventilators.

We also learn that many suspected cases are evading quarantine.

Some bold journalists have told us about initial shilly-shallying by our leaders. 

Perhaps, and ultimately, to learn the actual numbers laid low by the virus, we may have to wait till year’s end. 

That may reveal itself should the country’s crude death rate be shown to have gone up. (Currently nearly 7 per 1,000.)

However the “traditional treatment” this headline focusses on is in relation to what arises in the country when a subject gets media attention and starts to trend. 

Many eagerly piggyback on the opportunity. 

Covid-19 provides just such a chance.

First out at the crease was our tourism authorities boasting about beautiful scenery and outstanding health services. 

Next was Health Minister, Ramesh Pathirana, telling a media conference that “black tea” is a remedy. 

Following closely, the Minister of Health and Indigenous Medicine, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, reinforced by senior army men, issued a directive to over 60 indigenous medical practitioners pressing them for a cure for Covid-19. 

The Minister seemed unaware of an earlier announcement by the North Central Province Commissioner of Ayurveda, Dr. Kumara Alwis, that his department had already “produced medicines for both the prevention and cure of Corvid-19”. 

He claimed they were manufactured “according to an ancient Ayurvedic formula” and had been “distributing since April 1”.

Nobody questioned that it was only in recent times that viruses became known.

All such grandstanding receives enthusiastic media coverage along with photographs and TV timeslots.

No one has dared question the Ayurvedic breakthroughs or traditional curative journeys being undertaken.

Reason for that undoubtedly are additional risks journalists must now run during these difficult times. 

Senior police officers have threatened “tough legal action against anyone criticising government officials” or “spreading misinformation on social media”. 

Criticism has always been part of journalistic function and the word “misinformation” is elastic, especially when used by senior state officials. 

In addition, mainstream online media can also be heaped into the description of social media.

Ministerial and media emphasis on ayurvedic medicine in these critical times needs a further look.

The strategic motive in promoting Ayurveda at any given opportunity is common knowledge among most scribes.

The majority of our population live in rural areas, bound by tradition. For them, for most illnesses, home-grown remedies prescribed by the local vedamahatmaya suffice.

In that context the ever-present veda becomes an influential person. Having him onside, waving blue, green or red flag, is an important political consideration. 

There is no intention here to deride the effects of medicinal plants. They have a place in many societies and provide a comforting effect on non-critical illnesses that run a natural course. 

In fact, as a child, when down with the flu, this writer recalls drinking kothamalli and weniwelgeta together with paracetamol. The hot remedy had a soothing effect while the symptoms of a runny nose, cough, temperature, aches and pains, ran their usual course.

I also knew a man (sadly now deceased) who swore by Ayurvedic treatment for persistent flatulence and uncomfortable reflux brought on by continual overindulgence. 

Another, terrified of surgical needles and knives, would have nothing but “native treatment” for his discomforting piles. 

I was one of a group when an outspoken medical doctor complained that when Ayurvedic treatments failed to work, patients ended up in his government ward in critical condition or about to die.

Unfortunately, observed experiments that tell us exactly what effects herbal treatments can have are non-existent.  

And I am sure all sentient persons must be aware that if western medicine continued to rely on traditional or folk medicine – on the medicinal plants of catnip, dandelion and lavender – humankind would not have contained or eradicated many deadly diseases in man and animal. 

That includes smallpox, polio, malaria and German measles.

Modern-day medicine and doctors are also performing miraculous interventions and surgeries to save otherwise doomed lives. 

However in our current Covid-19 disarray, guesswork, rumour and overblown belief have filled social media in addition to spaces in mainstream media. 

Many eccentric claims for prophylactics and cures are being made. 

On the pages of certain Sri Lankan media, self-described “independent researchers” claim the country is safe because of “high temperature and high humidity levels”. 

Another has advance a theory that the country safe as it is placed outside certain lines of horizontal latitude on the globe renders.

Sri Lanka is not alone in coming up with “traditional medicines” to treat coronavirus. Many countries in Asia and Africa are also finding sure-fire cures and prophylactics.

Even in Australia, the authorities are investigating a prominent TV chef for making bizarre claims. He is promoting a $14,990 electrical contraption, “a hybrid subtle energy revitalisation platform” which he says has a “couple of [recipes] in there for the Wuhan coronavirus”.

Amidst all this confusion, it is accepted as a matter of course that no one will dare challenge claims made on the efficacy and suitability of Sri Lanka’s folk medicine for stopping Covid-19. 

Die-hard nationalists believe that to do so is to insult traditions and customs. In an inexplicable way, they have conflated Ayurveda with national culture. 

All such thinking is undoubtedly reason why the World Health Organization has warned of “a parallel pandemic, of substandard and falsified products”.

It may be too soon to say, but the government’s preventative measures, including the lockdown, may be having the desired effect on slowing down the virus. 

But Covid-19 isn’t going away any time soon. That calls for everyone to get behind the government, health workers, security and administrative authorities, whatever and whoever that may be, who all have the herculean task of confronting a virulent virus and the economic fallout to follow, of joblessness, homelessness, hunger and death. 

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