A few weeks ago, a railway worker in the United Kingdom Belly Mujinga died of coronavirus. But what is more tragic is how she contracted the virus. She was going about her duties when a man spat on her and said that he had coronavirus. A couple of days later, Mujinga started showing symptoms. Within the next forty-eight hours, she died.
While the world is trying to grapple with a deadly pandemic, which may very well spread through saliva, there's a new challenge: Spit attacks. In India, though, spitting is far more common than attacks.
Railway stations, government buildings, public toilets, roads and even cinema halls all spattered in red and crimson. These are not decorations. This is just the regular non-Swachh Bharat phenomenon. However, even as the Union Health Ministry had asked all states to prohibit the use and spitting of smokeless tobacco in public places, can the pandemic end this disgusting behaviour that has stayed intact despite fines?
The WHO has confirmed that coronavirus spreads through droplets, either directly or indirectly. For it to spread directly, you must come in contact with the droplets secreted by an infected person either through his mouth or nose. This usually happens when a person sneezes or coughs without covering their mouth. Spitting also leads to droplets in the air, especially since there is no question of covering the mouth in this case. As for indirect transmission, droplets tend to remain suspended in air and on various surfaces for a long period of time. If you come in contact with this, you too could be infected. This is also known as aerosol transmission of Covid-19.
If spitting is indeed no less than a health hazard in these trying times, the question arises - why do people continue to spit?
Gargi Vishnoi, a counselling psychologist at Fortis Escorts Hospital, says Indians spit without fear of being judged or the authorities penalising them because of social acceptance. "Social psychology says that people tend to think an act is okay or normal if other people are doing it. The idea is this - if a big group is doing it, then so can I. This is called diffusion of responsibility. Since a large number of people are doing it, the responsibility or the guilt doesn't fall on one person. No one person is held accountable and the guilt is shared. That is why most Indians think it is okay to do so," said Vishnoi.
To elaborate, Vishnoi compared this to mob mentality. The social acceptance theory which comes into play here normalises an act which may otherwise be considered wrong and in this case, plain disgusting. Years ago, a professor who travelled across Asia to study "spit personality" in various communities found that spitting is considered normal and accepted as part of the culture as a whole.
Meanwhile, across the world, more spit attack cases are being reported.
In Australia, a woman who claimed to be on her way to get tested for Covid-19 spat on a police officer after being stopped for speeding. In England, a 35-year-old man spat on three police officers while claiming to have Covid-19. He has since pleaded guilty and been fined and jailed for his actions. Closer to home, a 40-year-old man was arrested for spitting on a Delhi University student and calling her 'Coronavirus'. The woman from Manipur had stepped out to buy groceries and was returning to her paying guest accommodation in North Delhi's Vijay Vihar.
Impulsive? Violent? Vindictive? Incidents like these leave us wondering what could provoke an individual to take such drastic actions.
Dr. Jawahar Singh, a psychiatrist working at AIIMS Delhi, said such things happen mostly when the person has already had some mental health issues in the past. However, if the person had never shown traits of personality issues in the past, the only reason he or she would spit on another person is out of sheer anger and resentment.
Vishnoi has a slightly different perspective here. "If this just an instinctual case, then it's probably because we, as humans, aren't really empathetic. We are egocentric as a group and are programmed not to care about other human beings," she said.
She further explained that the fear and stigma surrounding the disease could be one of the reasons. The common notion around coronavirus is that anyone who is diagnosed with it will not survive, even as the mortality rates continue to be low in India. This feeling of catastrophisation may make one feel that they would be absolved of any responsibility and no one would implicate them for their actions and they could walk Scott free. That, according to Vishnoi, could be one of the reasons why the man at the railway station spat on Mujinga. Another theory is that the person doesn't want to suffer alone and wants to spread the disease so that suffering is shared. "Even when the AIDS outbreak happened, we read news of people deliberately spreading the disease because they didn't want to be the only people suffering," added Vishnoi.
However, she also explained that apart from these reasons, temporary insanity may also be one of the factors that can provoke a person to spit and purposely spread coronavirus. "Whenever we feel that our life is at threat, our body has a fight or flight reaction. This is usually due to the secretion of the adrenaline hormone which may compel us to do things that often appear crazy. It makes us angry, short-tempered, irritable and we lose control over our actions. No one in their right mind would do something like this," explained Vishnoi.
Dr. Anuradha Bhaduri, a doctor practicing in Kolkata, said "Social distancing and wearing of masks should be the new normal. Banning paan and gutka can be an option. Keeping a handkerchief or tissue handy should be encouraged. Awareness initiatives should be taken through all public forums." Only then can the virus spreading through spitting be stopped. She further added that spitting should be considered a health hazard in general and not just specifically because of coronavirus. "Spitting in public is dangerous at all times and in all circumstances. Saliva and mucus carry live germs upto 24 hours. Not only corona but many other deadly infections also can be contracted if one comes in contact," Bhaduri said.
Both Dr. Singh and Vishnoi are of the opinion that stricter measures should be imposed by the government to curb spitting. It might further add to the panic that's already an integral aspect of the coronavirus crisis. The World Health Organisation and the Indian government has issued several health advisories that seek to spread awareness about the dangers of coughing, sneezing and spitting in public; but that doesn't seem to stop Indians from doing what they've been doing all their lives.
The pandemic changed our lives overnight, but this seems to be the only constant. Spitting is gross, uncouth and now extremely dangerous too, it needs to stop. Period.