Topic Lowering the mask

“Celebrating massive poll rallies, letting lakhs gather for a dip undermine public-health messaging in the second surge.”

There is little doubt now that the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country has much to do with people letting down their guard when the virus appeared to be on the retreat around the second half of last year. Their urge to resume normal social life is understandable. But it was evident, quite early in the pandemic, that keeping the virus at bay would require a diligent adherence to COVID-appropriate behaviour — observing physical distancing, using masks — for months, probably years. A growing body of reportage now shows that these norms were observed in the breach in large parts of the country when the infection rates were going down, in the early stages of the current surge and, in fact, even after it became evident that the second wave of the pandemic was upon us. Medical experts and policymakers did, of course, caution people about the unpredictable ways of the virus. But conveying the gravity of the situation to a pandemic-weary population requires much more than issuing messages of warning. The task of creating an ambience of COVID safety places demands on public servants — they must be seen as observing appropriate behaviour. As reports of political and religious events suggest, they seem to have fallen short on that count. It’s difficult to expect people to stop crowding markets, malls or public transport, when COVID safety gets short shrift at election rallies or religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela. Political gatherings, elections are an essential part of democracy. But the norm, “do gaz ki duri, mask zaroori”, repeatedly emphasised — to strong effect — by Prime Minister Modi last year, seems to have lost traction as the virus went into decline, especially during electioneering. The Election Commission’s repeated pleas to parties to adopt safety has not received much attention. In an angry letter to all recognised parties last week, the EC complained: “Instances of election meetings/campaigns have come to the notice of the commission, where norms of social distancing, wearing of masks have been flouted… By doing so, the parties and candidates are exposing themselves as well as the public attending such meetings to the grave dangers of infection”. Political parties, leaders, campaigners, candidates, existing or aspiring policymakers, as the commission pointed out, “are expected to be torch-bearers for the campaign against COVID and hence, are expected to not only set an example by maintaining social distancing, wearing masks and following prescribed protocols but also by exhorting all the local formations who attend programmes to follow COVID protocols”.The road to post-COVID normalcy is potholed with several unknowns. It’s uncertain how soon we can blunt the virus with the vaccine — two jabs do not a magic bullet make in a country of a billion plus. What we do know is that COVID-appropriate behaviour is non-negotiable till the pathogen is amidst us. Inculcating the behavioural change, demanded by the pandemic, creating a milieu that places high value on safe interactions, may not always be easy — it helps if popular political leaders set an example.