On February 3, actor-model Poonam Pandey’s team released a statement that she had died of cervical cancer. Social media and television news channels went into a frenzy, mourning the 32-year-old’s life cut short while news websites published obituaries. On social media, people wrote testimonies and, in what triggered a moment of grief, others shared vulnerable personal incidents of losing family members or close ones to cervical or other kinds of cancer.

Twenty-four hours later, Pandey released a video saying she was alive and perfectly healthy. This was only a campaign to raise awareness about cervical cancer.

Perhaps she had succeeded in achieving her objective. Cervical cancer had trended on X, formerly known as Twitter, as had the fact that it is treatable. I for a fact know people who signed up for preventive health checkups. In a day Pandey got more people to learn about cervical cancer than the medical community has through conventional campaigns in decades.

Pandey is no stranger to controversy. In 2011 when the Cricket World Cup was being held, she claimed she would strip for the Indian cricket team if they won the tournament. In 2019, she released an alleged sex tape on Instagram. Earlier that year, Facebook had banned Pandey for inappropriate posts on the platform.

But can the ends justify the means? Faking her death was highly insensitive and triggering for families that have been affected by cancer. Urvashi Prasad, a health professional and friend, who is also battling cancer, summed it up well.

“I’m someone who unfortunately has way too much personal & professional knowledge of this disease,” she wrote on X. “For many who don’t, it sent the message that cancer can just kill you in an instant one fine day.”

Pandey may have raised awareness about cervical cancer, but there is no doubt that she spread misinformation about cervical cancer resulting in instant death. More than that is the doubt she may have ended up sowing in the minds of others.

Now, if someone talks of having cancer, some may feel that they are claiming they have cancer to get a free pass, garner sympathy or, worse still, to get attention as Pandey did. Cancer is agony for the person battling it and their family – emotionally, psychologically and financially. No one likes sympathy either.

Pandey will have done an enormous disservice to the community if people do not believe someone has cancer when they say it. Cancer is a spectrum and a patient does not necessarily have to show any specific symptoms, like losing hair and going through chemotherapy, to be battling it. Worse still, I hope Pandey does not give anyone any ideas to fake cancer to gain some accommodations from their workplace or educational institution.

As a person with a disability, I can partly relate, at least to the sympathy bit. I can relate even more to the exhaustion of constantly having to prove that we are genuinely disabled and need reasonable accommodations.

On January 31, Arushi Singh, a public policy consultant, was flying from Kolkata to Delhi. She happened to be a wheelchair user. At the security check at the Kolkata airport, a woman security officer asked Singh to stand up thrice despite her repeated pleas that she was a person with a disability. Perhaps it was too difficult for the security officer to believe that a confident, articulate and intelligent young woman could actually be a person with a disability.

A day later, while hearing a case filed by the National Federation of the Blind, the Madhya Pradesh High Court proposed constituting a three-tier scrutiny system to issue disability certificates for reservations in employment.

Surely, some have misused existing systems. But increased verifications will lead to more bureaucracy, red tape and crowding out many genuine candidates with disabilities. Disability recognition and certifications are grossly underestimated in India. The World Health Organisation states that 16% of the global population is disabled. India’s 2011 census, however, grossly underestimated the country’s disabled population at 2.21%.

A further case in point is the Unique Disability ID card launched in 2017 that had just a crore sign-ups in six years, as of December 2023. Some may have benefitted using fake disability certifications, but many others suffer due to the suspicion and bureaucracy involved in accreditation.

It is exhausting to constantly prove that you are a person with a disability. When I sought admission to Delhi University, I had to be physically carried up a floor to the centre that reconfirmed my disability.

I know of those visibly disabled with medical certifications to complement their condition who have to go through medical and fitness tests to confirm their disabilities.

Pandey might not have dropped dead, but her antics are a huge disservice to individuals fighting cancer, their caretakers and families.

Nipun Malhotra is the Founder of Nipman Foundation. His handle on X is @nipunmalhotra and he can be found on linkedin here. He was born with arthrogryposis and is a wheelchair user.