• October 1, 2020 1:34 am

Reporting From Delhi

The Corona rebels

ByMihir Srivastava

Jul 3, 2020

A growing number of people in the US don’t support wearing masks to contain the pandemic. This view has its takers in India too, though they are not vocal about it

Covid-19 has changed the way we live and perhaps, also the future—which will be a ‘new normal’. But there are some who are not willing to succumb to lifestyle changes so meekly. They are questioning the measures required to deal with the pandemic that has infected more than a crore people all over the world. Some are especially resistive of wearing a mask and the requirement of social distancing.

After some confusion in the earlier months about whether masks help slow the spread of Covid-19, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a statement on 8 April saying there was no evidence to suggest wearing a face mask when outdoors prevented healthy people from picking up Covid-19. But soon this view changed as there was growing unanimity that wearing masks is a must, more so in situations where social distancing is difficult — like in a market.

States in the US that aren’t likely to wear masks

Despite the requirement, in the US it has become a political issue for the last couple of months. This is despite health experts in the US maintaining that the mask is a “public health issue” and should not be politicised. And none other than President Donald Trump himself is in the eye of the storm when he says some Americans adorn masks not to prevent the spread of Coronavirus but as a way to “signal disapproval of him.” After all, presidential election fever is gripping America despite the pandemic.

In the US polity, there’s a broad categorisation. Republicans are seen as not too supportive of wearing the mask while Democrats are orchestrating a masked opposition to the incumbent president. The health fraternity is aghast at the President’s remarks, and some of the fellow Republican leaders, like the senior Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, have opposed it. They urge Americans to follow the recommendations of  health officials which includes wearing masks to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

His deputy, Vice President Mike Pence issued a clarification, claiming that the President is a supporter of masks and that “he’s worn one in public.” In most cases, that’s not true. It’s no surprise that the US is the worst affected country and accounts for nearly a quarter of all Covid-19 cases in the world.

There are many Trump supporters, though. Among California’s 15 most populated counties, in six—namely Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Fresno, Kern, Ventura and San Joaquin—people are not required to wear masks. About 150 maskless people had gathered before the Texas Capitol in Austin on a Sunday afternoon to protest against mask-wearing being made mandatory by the state and local authorities.

The armoured vehicle iconic to Alex Jones gained the attention of the passerby and his Info Wars brand welcomed the audience with much fanfare. Atop the roof of the armoured vehicle, Owen Shroyer was seen shouting using a mike, asserting that masks do nothing to prevent Coronavirus transmission. “We refuse to be a slave to the government,” Shroyer said. “We refuse to comply with illegal orders. We will not wear masks.” Similarly, Stockton’s mayor, Michael Tubbs’s proposal for covering face rules failed to get the support of the City Council last week.

There are situations when public health safety concerns are relegated to the periphery. Across the US, outrage over the death of George Floyd led to protests that were the very antithesis of social distancing and hundreds and thousands of people came out on the street. It’s not the people to be blamed entirely. Police managing the mob, particularly in the worst affected city—New York—attracted global attention due to the absence of the face mask.

Many of the officers managing the protesting crowd weren’t wearing masks, others had it hanging around their necks. Despite assurances by the Governor Andrew M Cuomo “Police officers should be wearing masks”, many of the cops defied the public safety measures. Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “frustrated by it” and that “police officers are supposed to wear face coverings in public, period.”

Singapore feels mask is not a panacea to prevent spread of the pandemic

Back home, many support the attitude of reckless NYPD officials. Like an assistant professor in a central university who finished his post-doctoral in a University in New York a couple of years back. ‘Jimmy’,  32 years old, wants to speak anonymously fearing his comments will invite police action. “They’d register a FIR,” he says.

Arguing as a rebel, he is of the view that wearing a mask as a public safety measure is overrated. There are so many if and buts associated with it to be effective and people are not even aware of it: it has to be worn correctly, needs to be changed and washed regularly or else will become a source of infection. He explains that “a dirty mask is far more dangerous than no mask at all. Good hygienic behavior is a must, with or without the mask.”

We have a desi version of Trump kind of an attitude as well. The actor-turned-politician and Jana Sena Party leader Naga Babu opposed the proposal of Telangana of imposition of lockdown as ‘historic blunder’ as “people will revolt against the government…will be atrocious, bringing normal life back to a complete halt.”

Increasingly, people are getting anxious at the disruption of their socio-economic life. Income is an issue not just for the working class. Public health restrictions for many is no more a pressing concern, livelihood is. While the government has made it illegal to flout lockdown regulations, there’s growing fatigue. There are many like Jimmy who feel restrictions have failed to contain the pandemic, and people should be allowed to go about their business normally.

However, in India, nobody has hit the streets with banners to protest against masks or other restrictions. There’s a sullen silence on the part of dissenters.

(Cover: A man roaming in the Hauz Khas village without mask being apprehended by a vigilant citizen Tarun Nanda)