‘Tuob’ and the science gap
Filipinos and traditional health remedies seem inseparable.
From lagundi leaves to malunggay paste to Vicks VapoRub, they’re often considered to be as valid an option as modern medicine, sometimes even the wiser option. For the most part, they’re harmless; at best, they’re a highly accessible way to get some relief from an illness.
Which is why when government officials in Cebu encouraged the traditional practice of tuob or steam inhalation in the middle of this COVID-19 pandemic, many felt comforted.
In a memorandum, provincial capitol employees were “enjoined” to perform the practice twice a day. The memo didn’t actually say tuob was meant to be a preventive measure or a cure for coronavirus infection, but it was followed by pressers where the practice was touted as a way to alleviate COVID-19 symptoms.
In the ensuing confusion on social media, many people ended up embracing tuob as their go-to healing practice against the coronavirus. And how could they not? We’re in the thick of a deadly health crisis which the world’s top experts are still scrambling to solve, we’ve held our breath (so to speak) for over a hundred days now, and we’re desperate to avoid costly hospitalization.
Now here comes a health practice that can easily be done at home for zero cost, and it’s endorsed by government leaders. How could people not latch their hope on it?
The trouble is that it’s false comfort. There is no scientific evidence or consensus that DIY home remedies like tuob can fight the novel coronavirus.
A reliance on such remedies could get in the way of legitimate medical treatment, making patients and their families complacent with respiratory symptoms. Even worse, it could stoke a misguided confidence that COVID-19 isn’t as serious as professionals have said it is.
Home therapies could also cause some harm—hospitals have revealed that they get patients with serious scald injuries due to steam inhalation.
But it’s tough to refute a misplaced hope. Already, people are sharing anecdotes on social media about how tuob cleared up their mysterious respiratory illnesses or how this practice has been more effective than what their physicians prescribed.
In response, doctors and health care workers immediately weighed in with their medical guidance, reminding the public that there is no real remedy for COVID-19 yet, and emphasizing that while home therapies are not prohibited, it can be dangerous to depend on them.
Astoundingly, these medical professionals—who intended to help people with credible medical counsel—were met with so much criticism and bullying. Some pitted them against government officials, challenging them to serve in public office or otherwise shut up.
Another common response held that doctors were against home remedies only because these meant less money going into their profession.
So much for trusting the frontliners.
The science gap is clear here—the disconnect between evidence-based science and the public’s acceptance, and worse still, the disconnect between science and policymaking. Scientific knowledge is available, but people don’t always accept it as basis for their personal decisions, and public leaders don’t always use it to guide their policies.
This is a challenge that scientists and medical professionals have been trying to surmount for so long, even in a country like the Philippines where most of the population is supposed to be literate. These days, our frontliners even have to go on social media and literally beg the public (in common layman’s dialect) to please listen to credible science.
Much of the challenge is due to traditional wisdom being so deeply entrenched in our culture that we experience some dissonance when presented with new, differing knowledge.
If you grew up in a family that saw benefits in tuob (even my family did), it can be hard to grasp that it doesn’t always work wonders for all respiratory issues. And it can be frustrating to hear that that glimmer of hope we thought we had against COVID-19 was unfounded.
But, instead of loathing the science or slinging conspiracy theories at legitimate doctors, we need to check our own preconceptions. Our adamant stance against science could very well become the barrier to ending this pandemic.