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Converting the 'Covidiots': Why Some Indians Won't Stay Home and How to Deal with Them

People clap and clang utensils to show gratitude to the helpers and medical practitioners who are working relentlessly to fight coronavirus in Kolkata on March 22, 2020. (PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra)

People clap and clang utensils to show gratitude to the helpers and medical practitioners who are working relentlessly to fight coronavirus in Kolkata on March 22, 2020. (PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra)

India is one of those few nations having the highest number of quarantine runaways, there are also many who have tried to hide their recent travel histories from the authorities.

Millennials invent a word for every new phenomenon. For instance, individuals who ignore government instructions of staying at home and practising social distancing to curb Coronavirus or people who have begun hoarding food thereby causing food shortage across the world, have been called 'covidiots' by the netizens. The term is a portmanteau, combining two words -- Covid-19, and idiots.

While it may be easy to dismiss such individuals as 'idiots', psychologists and sociologists claim that several factors are responsible for such cavalier behaviour, which show an utter disregard towards public health safety, and a complete lack of social responsibility. According to them, some of the factors that make people act in such a careless manner are social conditioning, lack of faith in the healthcare system, botched-up messaging from the government about COVID-19, lack of historicity as well as the absence of scientific approach.

India is perhaps one of those few nations which have had the highest number of quarantine runaways, there are also many who have tried to hide their recent travel histories from the authorities so as to evade self-quarantine, symptomatic individuals are wary about being tested and of course, for all of us who have lived behind shut doors for over weeks now, there is a careless bunch of youth who are still going out for drives, partying and eating out as if they have already got a vaccination for the deadly virus, and there are also elderlies who just won't stop socialising, although, they are the ones at a greater risk of contracting the virus.

Why Some People won't Practice Social Distancing?

Counselling psychologist Natasha Mehta claims that people who are aware of the virus and its deadly impact, often ignore government advisories, and media warnings because of their obsessive need for instant gratification.

"Current lifestyle choices have made most people seek immediate gratification which hinders their ability to be foresighted towards the eventual outcome of their actions," said Mehta. "Also, Indians are groomed with a 'chalta hai' attitude which fuels our irresponsibility (appropriate ability to respond)" she added.

Ahmedabad-based sociologist Gurang Jani pointed out that another reason why many people don't understand that social distancing is a big part of social responsibility is because they generally don't think about society at all, and have a very limited world view.

"We don't ever think about how to behave in public life, and what are our duties and responsibilities towards the society. Our worlds are very small and mostly restricted to our families, so our world view is also underdeveloped," said Jani.

Jani said that many individuals have already alienated themselves from the problem of spreading virus. "The general thought process is that what is happening will not affect us. It is not our disease. For instance, people are blaming China for it. There are many racist jokes doing rounds on Whatsapp about how the corona is a Chinese disease," he added.

A Mumbai-based clinical and counselling psychologist Arti Sharma claimed that the public perception of the rising risks of the pandemic is also inaccurate in India.

"One of the reasons why people are not responding to social distancing is because they are not fully aware of the seriousness of the problem. Many are still ignorant about the technicalities of this disease -- it's mode of transmission, how to get tested etcetera," said Sharma. "Also, perhaps many are convinced that hygiene practices are not enough to control the spread of the disease," she added.

Jani agreed with Sharma and pointed out that it hasn't helped the situation that most of the advertisements put out by the government in public spaces, newspapers and social media have been about washing hands, and staying indoors. There is hardly any other useful information being given to the public so that they can gauge the seriousness of the problem.

"When the American president Donald Trump visited India, the roads of Ahmedabad were lined with billboards about his visit. But, there is hardly any billboard about the Coronavirus on the streets now, although spreading awareness about the virus is of utmost importance at this point." said the sociologist.

Jani said that symbolic gestures like Janata curfew also doesn't help, especially when they turn out to be counterproductive, and instead of encouraging people to stay at home, actually brings them together in groups, increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

"Indian political leaders have made many unscientific and irresponsible statements so far. From claims like India will not be affected by coronavirus because we have 33 crore gods and goddesses, to leaders saying that gaumutra will help combat coronavirus, there have been many such statements which no one from the government or the civil society have objected," he added. Such messaging should be stopped immediately by the government, and there should be a clear line of communication which tells true scientific facts about the virus if the government wants people to take the pandemic seriously, said the sociologist.

Quarantine Runaways

At this point, the best chance of treatment that anyone has is to be quarantined in the hospital after he/she has tested positive. However, lately, we have seen that many such quarantined people have tried to escape. It seems like an illogical step, and counterproductive. But many are resorting to it because they do not have faith in the healthcare system, and are afraid of the social stigma. Reports also claim that the hospitals where quarantined patients are being treated are unclean and congested.

"People have little faith in our healthcare system. They do not know how the hospital people will treat them. If they would be provided with the right kind of support and care, or if they would be stigmatised." said Jani.

There has been so much of stigma associated with coronavirus so far. People have refused to burn bodies of corona patients, friends and relatives have shunned them. However, that should not be the case. In case of corona positive patients, of course social-isolation is a must, but that doesn't mean they have to be emotionally isolated, pointed out Arti Sharma. The psychologist said that such patients should always stay in touch with their loved ones through phones.

"Chances are that several people who have tried to run away from quarantine were feeling isolated. Mental health concerns could be inflamed by stressors associated with quarantine like infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, lack of information, financial loss and of course, the stigma associated with contracting the disease," said Sharma.

"Corona positive patients should be treated with dignity and care. They should not be blamed for their condition. The health care workers taking care of them should be friendly and cooperative, that will ease off patients' anxiety. The focus should be on building trust so that symptomatic individuals voluntarily take the initiative to get tested." she added.

Converting the 'Covidiots'

There has been a lot of anger venting on social media towards those who continue to flout social distancing rules. But like most cases, anger isn't the solution. Counselling Psychologist Natasha Mehta suggests that a one-on-one approach may be most effective. So, if you take the initiative to broach the subject with a loved one who has refused to practice social distancing so far, it may work more than posting angry stories on Instagram.

"Loved ones need to model correct behaviour and discourage the wrong behaviours and attitudes," said Mehta.

"There need to be strict law enforcement to further secure the rights of safety for all. Inspirational messages/stories coming from the national icons will pace up the awareness and acceptance and action," she added.

Mehta said that it may be beneficial to point out how social distancing has offered everyone a time to relax, reflect, recognise and resurrect. "We often hear people seeking peace but now that an opportunity has presented itself to actually get some peace in life, they are all panicking. This 'distancing time' gives us an opportunity to encounter a shadow side of the self which people are afraid of confronting. It's easy to run then to confront. Thus we choose to fill our lives with noise, activities or this or that to keep away from our own emotions." she added.

What can the Government Do?

As India grapples to contain the virus, so that we can avoid stage three, it is also becoming clear that neither the members of the government nor the public, in general, have a sense of historicity when it comes to tackling any kind of public health emergency.

"Historically, India has witnessed famine (in 1899 and 1943) and plague (in 1901) during which lakhs of people have died. But, that kind of history is nor relayed, neither taught. We always learn Indian history from a glorious point of view. Therefore, the sense of history is not there within the government as well as within the civic authorities when it comes to tackling a public health crisis situation." said Jani.

The sociologist pointed out that in the absence of experience in handling any kind of public health emergency, the best thing to do for the Indian government is to take a scientific approach and try to disassociate the stigma from the disease.

Our understanding of health is tainted by religious beliefs, stigmatized culture, and misinformation and as long as this continues, we will not have everyone on one side against coronavirus, said Jani.

"It is important for the government as well as CSR to provide scientific information. The WHO has already started giving health alerts. The Indian government can also do that. However, it isn't just on the government to fight the virus. Civic bodies, civil societies, teachers associations, doctors -- all these people should come together to disseminate correct information about the disease if they want everyone to take it seriously," he added.

first published:March 23, 2020, 13:41 IST