Why Don’t People in India Wear Masks?

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Participants at the Kumbh Mela (Credit: Shutterstock)

The evidence is abundantly clear and the message is amplified across the world by several health authorities and governments: simple individual efforts like double-masking, socially-distancing and washing your hands can make a massive difference in the war against coronavirus. Yet why do we see people adopt a negligent, casual and even hostile stance against wearing masks? India is not that different from the west in that it has its own share of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers who prefer to see science as an opinion you can choose not to have.

Early in the pandemic, a video went viral (it has since been taken down) alleging that masks were a sign of slavery and insinuated that it was in fact more patriotic not to wear a mask.

A small survey from 2020 found that 90% of Indians were aware, but only 44% were wearing masks. Their main reason not to? Discomfort.

In a video that would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad, a farmer from Cooch Behar in Bengal, tells a reporter that as a farmer, he did not have time to wear a mask. It’s his firm belief that Corona escapes the body through sweat and hard work in the sun.

Pratap Singh*, a daily-wage laborer based in Hyderabad, works in several different construction sites a day, wearing a napkin around his mouth for protection. “I can’t get corona,” he tells me, with a wide grin on his face. “Corona is afraid of me. It will run away. It might come to him, or him,” he says, pointing at random people on the street. “But it won’t get me,” he chuckles. His hubris is terrifyingly common. Some experts even said that because India (and other low-middle income countries) has poorer hygiene and sanitation standards, that Indians are more resistant to the virus and have “higher immunity.”

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Indian devotees take part in a holy bath on the occasion of Kumbh Mela, which happens once in 12 years, at Har Ki Pauri Ghat in Haridwar, India. (Credit: Shutterstock)

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, Prime Minister Modi painted a glorious picture of India’s success in the pandemic, the various measures taken, the help it was able to provide the world in terms of vaccines and also set lofty vaccination targets.

It’s true, a lot of things were done well: for close to a year you couldn’t call anyone unless you endured an (almost) unskippable government PSA first—entreating citizens in all national languages to mask up and stay socially distant. Now that message has been replaced with one encouraging Indians to get vaccinated.

However, there was also what has widely been called a collapse in preventive healthcare. We Indians are social people, hate being cooped up, love our festivals and movies…and let’s face it—we aren’t the best at following rules. Add to the punch a healthy dose of corona fatigue.

It’s a favorite joke among Indians currently outgrowing all their clothes thanks to pandemic weight gain that “Arey, don’t you know, Corona is over here in (area name)?” Even under lockdowns of varying strictness, people throng public places, stand around laughing heartily at restaurants, and take off their masks at the homes of friends and family.

Either it’s “Come on man, we’re at home now! There’s no Corona here!” from a friend, or it will be an uncle saying “Praana is the essence of life, do not cover the flow of air.”

The skyrocketing fatalities, the heart-wrenching images of pyres and hospital beds on the streets are horrifying, but they do little to change behavior, a bit like the gruesome images on cigarette packs of throat and lung cancers—they might make you feel a bit more self-loathing, but aren’t going to stop you from smoking.

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Relatives carry a body of a Covid-19 victim to a funeral pyre for his cremation at a Nigambodh Ghat crematorium in New Delhi. (Credit: Shutterstock)

“I’m a doctor myself,” admits Dr Meghna Sinha,* a retired pediatrician currently offering free telecounselling to Covid patients in her spare time. “I know better than to hug and kiss my ninety-year old mother and it’s so difficult even for me to resist the urge to do so while she is not fully-vaccinated. What kind of restraint can we expect of the masses?”

In this writer’s opinion, it is improper to place the onus solely on the shoulders of individuals in India, the US, or anywhere else in the world to protect themselves. It’s not that we are not masking or distancing or washing our hands enough. That is like blaming the climate emergency solely on indigenous communities doing slash-and-burn farming instead of the corporations and governments destroying pristine natural habitats en masse for coal mines and making other irreversibly damaging choices.

All the masking and hand washing will not stop the virus from claiming lives if super-spreader events are not only allowed but also organized by governments. After handling the virus with the requisite level of seriousness, the government went on to give the go-ahead for events like the Kumbh Mela and other large gatherings, and hold massive rallies for state-level elections — without at the same time preparing India’s health and economic infrastructure for the second wave.

Photographs from these events show people maskless, with almost zero social-distancing involved. No measures were taken to curb the spread. The state of Madhya Pradesh reported that 99% Kumbh returnees tested positive for Covid-19; while 22 pilgrims remained untraced.

The truth is, India is going through a crisis of unimaginable proportions and the only preventive healthcare that shows any promise in stopping the virus is the vaccine. Now, we’ve not managed to persuade Indians to mask-up. Can we get them to say yes to vaccines—and produce and distribute them on time?