Lectures

Asian Medicines, COVID-19 and the Politics of Science: An Unpublished Letter to the Editor of Nature

This article is part of the series:

We are sharing below a ‘Letter to the Editor’ submitted to Nature. On May 6, 2020, an article titled “China is promoting coronavirus treatments based on unproven traditional medicines” appeared on the website of the esteemed scientific journal. The article was internally commissioned and authored by David Cyranoski, the magazine’s Asia-Pacific correspondent. We found this Nature article to be a reductive and dismissive response to Chinese medical knowledge and its treatment strategies. Given that COVID-19 has led to a global wave of anti-Chinese racism and xenophobia, we felt the journal had an obligation to redress these shortcomings. 

We read the article while finalizing our Hot Spots series on Asian Medicines and COVID-19, for the Fieldsights section of Cultural Anthropology. In our Introduction, we noted the importance of taking a closer look at Chinese TCM formulas and their potential applications during the pandemic, both conceptually and empirically. We invite readers interested in more varied and nuanced perspectives on the COVID-Asian medicine interface to browse these essays. Other relevant, recent contributions include the excellent pieces by Banu Subramaniam and Debjani Bhattacharyya and Helen Tilley, which are part of Somatosphere’s “Dispatches from the Pandemic.” Engaged academics must stand with practitioners, patients, and consumers of Asian medical traditions in the face of biomedical hegemony while at the same time being critical and empirical in our orientations. Self-serving (mis-)representations, disinformation, and appropriation of medical knowledge and practices clearly go both ways, with Asian as well as “Western” governments and academic journals playing key roles in these processes.

Our 300-word letter, submitted on May 14, appears below (with minor changes in reference style and a few elaborations for Somatosphere readers). Besides a general notification that “e-mail traffic in this section is unprecedented at this extraordinary time,” we did not receive any further response within the fifteen-day follow-up time frame. We invite readers to share conspicuous examples of biased biomedical reporting on Asian medicines as well as links to related materials in the comments feed of this post.

To: Nature

Subject: Letter to the Editor

Suggested title: COVID-19, Asian medical traditions, and the politics of science

We are pleased to see that the varied response of Asian medical traditions to the coronavirus pandemic (see Chen 2020; Tilu et al. 2020; Craig et al. 2020) is receiving attention in this esteemed journal. Yet on May 6, 2020, a worrisome news item titled “China is promoting coronavirus treatments based on unproven traditional medicines” appeared on your journal’s website. In the article Cyranoski highlights how government policies and economic stakes shape the promotion of TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) formulas in and beyond China.

The appraisal of TCM and related therapies in the light of biomedical standards of safety and efficacy has its merits — and limitations. As social scientists, we engage with Asian medical traditions, including in spaces of clinical research, theory, and practice, where terms such as “noxious dampness” make sense. The Nature article pulled this specific TCM terminology out of its larger etiological context, making the statement that COVID-19 is “a disease caused by noxious dampness” meaningless (and even ridiculous) to non-specialist readers.

We regret that Cyranoski’s critical perspective did not include more reflection on the power dynamics, methodological conundrums, and epistemic violence implicit in the application of biomedically biased “evidence-based medicine” to Asian scholarly medicines. A subtle element of xenophobic prejudice pervades the supposedly objective assessment of “non-Western” treatments as “dangerous,” especially when compared to the stated “potential” of the experimental drug remdesivir for COVID-19 patients. This antiviral might be deemed more scientifically legitimate, but it should be acknowledged that this medicine — like its TCM counterparts — is also tied up in a web of state funding and the “pushing” of corporate commercial interests that has been described as “disaster capitalism” and the “pandemic industrial complex” (Adams 2020).

The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that many patients/consumers use traditional medicines irrespective of endorsement by the pharmaceutical gold standard of double-blind trials, taking small steps away from the paternalism of conventional medicine. But the WHO has conveniently forgotten that TCM also played a significant role in the successful response to the 2003-2004 SARS epidemic (Hanson 2010). Then, and again, the experience-based “evidence” of Asian medicine’s benefits seems difficult for the medical orthodoxy to digest.

Five months into the pandemic, we have seen how government responses are reinforcing existing lines of inequality and marginalization, including in the use of Asian medicines. It is crucial for scientists to highlight the complex and often hidden political, economic and scientific processes that reinforce certain biomedical pandemic responses, while sidelining others.

References

Adams, Vincanne. 2020. “Disasters and capitalism…and COVID-19.Somatosphere, March 26.

Chen, John. 2020. “Coronavirus (COVID-19) and TCM: Scientific Research and Clinical Evidence of Chinese Herbs” and “How Coronavirus is Treated with TCM in China.” Webinars and associated clinical resources. eLotus. https://www.elotus.org/content/tcm-resources-covid-19

Craig, Sienna R., Barbara Gerke, and Jan M. A. van der Valk. 2020. “Responding to an Unfolding Pandemic: Asian Medicines and COVID-19.” Cultural Anthropology Hot Spots, Fieldsights, June 23. https://culanth.org/fieldsights/series/responding-to-an-unfolding-pandemic-asian-medicines-and-covid-19

Hanson, Martha. 2010. “Conceptual Blind Spots, Media Blindfolds: The Case of SARS and Traditional Chinese Medicine.” In Health and Hygiene in Chinese East Asia: Policies and Publics in the Long Twentieth Century, edited by Qizi Liang, and Charlotte Furth, 228-254. Durham, N.C., London: Duke University Press.

Tilu, G., S. Chaturvedi, A. Chopra, B. Patwardhan. 2020. “Public Health Approach of Ayurveda and Yoga for COVID-19 Prophylaxis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/32310670.

Acknowledgement

The contribution by Gerke and van der Valk is supported by the FWF Austrian Science Fund (grant 30804) through the University of Vienna.


Sienna R. Craig (PhD Cornell University, 2006) is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. She is a medical and cultural anthropologist whose work focuses on Asian medicines, global health, women’s and children’s health, and migration and social change.

Barbara Gerke (M.Sc., D.Phil., University of Oxford) is a social and medical anthropologist researching Sowa Rigpa and currently the principal investigator of the Austrian Science Fund project “Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Ritual at the University of Vienna.

Jan M. A. van der Valk is a biologist (MSc, University of Leuven), ethnobotanist, and anthropologist (MSc, PhD, University of Kent, Canterbury) who has been studying Sowa Rigpa with Gen. Pasang Yonten Arya, since 2012. He is also a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vienna, in the Austrian Science Fund project “Potent Substances in Sowa Rigpa and Buddhist Ritual.”


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