Doctors in India are urging Hindus to stop covering themselves in cow dung and urine, an act performed as a desperate bid to ward off COVID-19.
Their warning comes as coronavirus cases in India surpass 22.66 million and deaths climb beyond 246,100 – though experts say actual numbers could be up to 10 times higher.
Making matters worse is an ancient ritual being practised by Hindus in the state of Gujarat in western India.
There, some believers have been covering their bodies in cow dung and urine once a week in the hope it will boost their immunity against, or help them recover from the coronavirus.
“We see … even doctors come here. Their belief is that this therapy improves their immunity and they can go and tend to patients with no fear,” said Gautam Manilal Borisa, an associate manager at a pharmaceuticals company who, as quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald, said the practice helped him recover from COVID-19 last year.
For centuries, Hindus have used cow dung to clean their homes and for prayer rituals, believing it has therapeutic and antiseptic properties.
But doctors are concerned it will instead contribute to the spread of the virus as it involves people gathering in groups.
India’s coronavirus variant ‘can spread more easily’
In another grim sign for India, the World Health Organisation has now reclassified the triple-mutant strain ripping through the country as a variant of “global concern”.
A variant can be labelled “of concern” if it has been shown to be more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments, according to the WHO.
Preliminary studies have shown the B1617 variant spreads more easily.
On Monday, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove told a briefing there was also some evidence the variant may be able to evade some of the protections provided by vaccines.
Later that day, however, the organisation clarified vaccine shots were still considered effective.
The B1617 strain is the fourth variant named as being of global concern and requiring extra tracking and analysis.
The others were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.
What’s India doing about it?
Not enough, according to critics of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
After bragging about India’s initial success at containing the virus, the divisive prime minister is now being slammed for his handling of the country’s vicious second wave.
Last month, as hospitals filled up with coronavirus patients and relatives struggled to find oxygen supplies, Mr Modi went ahead with a huge campaign rally.
He also refused to cancel cricket matches and a major Hindu festival attended by millions.
More than two-thirds of India’s states are under lockdowns, though medical experts, opposition leaders and Supreme Court judges are calling for national restrictions.
They say a hodgepodge of state rules won’t be enough to quell the rise in infections.
Why won’t India have another nationwide lockdown?
Despite mounting international and domestic pressure, Mr Modi has so far resisted a national lockdown, urging states to consider the measure “as the last option”.
The reasons why are complex.
Mr Modi copped intense criticism over India’s total lockdown in March last year, and it’s likely he wants to avoid similar backlash.
In a country of 1.366 billion people, lockdowns are hard to enforce.
Adding to that challenge is India’s huge number of internal migrants, which make up about 37 per cent of the total population, according to the country’s 2011 census.
Most of them are workers who left their small villages in search of job opportunities in big cities like Mumbai or Delhi.
This trend further complicates efforts aimed at containing the virus.
When Mr Modi introduced a nationwide lockdown in March last year with only four hours’ notice, a humanitarian crisis exploded as migrant workers rushed to their homes in rural areas – potentially taking COVID-19 back with them.
For a country that was already battling high poverty rates, this was the final straw for millions of workers who were living hand-to-mouth.
An estimated 75 million more people in India fell into poverty last year compared with what it would have been like without COVID-19, an analysis by Pew Research Centre, a US think tank, found.
Unlike Australia, where people who lost their jobs during the pandemic could access JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments, India does not have a strong social safety net.
Most people don’t pay taxes under the country’s income tax system, leaving billions of people to fend for themselves.
As hospitals struggle for oxygen and bodies pile up at crematoriums, a blanket lockdown may only add to India’s pain.