Traditional Tibetan Medicines See Spike in Demand as Purported Coronavirus Remedies

tibet-medicine.jpg In this photograph taken on March 23, 2017, semi-precious stones used in Tibetan medical treatment are displayed for sale in the Indian town of Dharamsala.

Tibetan traditional medicine is seeing a marked increase in demand across China as many have come to believe – despite the absence of scientific evidence or even clinical tests – that it is effective at treating coronavirus.

A source who requested anonymity in the Tibetan capital Lhasa told RFA’s Tibetan Service that several coronavirus patients in and around Tibet, who have since made full recoveries, were treated with traditional medicines.

These medicines are centuries old and are composed of natural ingredients like herbs and minerals.

The Chinese government’s narrative is that besides one patient, there have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Lhasa.

“But Tibetans in Tawu [Daofu in Chinese] and some other places were confirmed to be infected by the coronavirus. With the help of traditional Tibetan medicinal remedies, all the patients are believed to have recovered,” the source said.

“Because of this the popularity of Tibetan medicine has spread like wildfire,” the source added.

According to the source, demand for Tibetan remedies increased sharply outside of Tibet.

“It is even being promoted by a Chinese doctor as an effective alternative medicine for COVID-19,” the source said.

“Tibetan students returning to China to continue their studies are taking lots of Tibetan medicine with them, fearing that they might be stricken with COVID-19. Many Chinese visitors also buy the medicine such as rana samphel to send it back to their relatives and family in China,” said the source.

There are also reports of Tibetan COVID-19 patients seeking traditional remedies in New York City, the U.S. city hardest hit by the deadly virus. Many believe that the traditional medicine can reduce death rates by preventing patients with mild or moderate symptoms from developing more serious ones.

“Such positive news about the Tibetan traditional remedies for COVID-19, have led to a high demand of the medicine. The spike in the demand of traditional medicine was fueled not only by Tibetans but by visiting Chinese tourists in Lhasa”, another source in Lhasa who requested anonymity told RFA.

“These days, businesses are up and running in Lhasa, restaurants and shops are open, at the same time an influx of Chinese from mainland, including from Wuhan, [the epicenter of the pandemic], are arriving in Lhasa nonstop,” said the second source.

“This is very concerning for many Tibetan residents in Lhasa who fear a resurgence of the coronavirus. The lockdown in Wuhan has been lifted, so many of them are arriving in Lhasa,” the second source added.

In debates following the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan early this year, some experts in charge of managing the outbreak reportedly dissented from President Xi Jinping's decree that traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) should be used in tandem with mainstream medical approaches to tackle the virus.

State media touts traditional remedies

China’s official Tibet News website republished an article on March 3 stating that ancient Tibetan traditional medicines were considerably effective in the fight against preventing and containing the coronavirus.

The original report, written in Chinese published in Xihuan News and translated into Tibetan said, “Since the beginning of the deadly outbreak, traditional remedies of Chinese medicine combined with traditional Tibetan medicines have played a pivotal role in the successful fight against coronavirus.”

The report quotes officials of Qinghai’s Health Commission as saying “Out of 18 positive coronavirus cases, 17 patients have recovered after taking combination of ancient Chinese remedies and Tibetan traditional remedies. Thus the Tibetan traditional treatment received state approval and Chinese health insurance covers it.”

However, RFA reported in late February this year, the sale of one type of Tibetan medicine called rimsung rilbu in India was stopped on the orders of local authorities.

Authorities became aware of the treatment after receiving reports of domestic disturbances related to people seeking the drug.

"Men-Tsee-Khang, the Tibetan Medical And Astro Institute here in [Dharamsala], Himachal Pradesh, was directed by the government to stop the sale of rimsung rilbu so as to prevent any misconception in the public mind,” Kangra’s chief medical officer Dr. G.D. Gupta told RFA.

Men Tsee Khang’s director clarified to RFA that no claim was made regarding rimsung rilbu’s effectiveness against the coronavirus and that the institute would comply with the authorities’ orders.

RFA was unable to identify any clinical data related to the effectiveness of rimsung rilbu or any other traditional medicine against the coronavirus.

Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul. Written in English by Eugene Whong.


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