During the 1896 plague outbreak in Bombay, the British government tried to introduce western medicine to the Indian populace in an effort to control the number of deaths. They also enforced other methods to impede the spread of the disease, such as forcibly admitting people to hospitals and making vaccines mandatory.
However, such attempts were viewed by many locals as means of imperialistic subjugation, especially because the implemented restrictions not only hampered businesses and trade, but also religious and social freedom. As a consequence, these restrictions, which were put in place to save lives (albeit in horrendous ways), resulted in sparking demonstrations, protests, and even riots.
Circa 2020, as India battles another disease, namely COVID-19, a new set of rules and restrictions have been put in place by the states and central government to curb the virus which has already claimed 10,3000 lives. The most important one among these rules, of course, is to wear masks mandatorily in public spaces to avoid contracting the virus. Anyone violating this rule will be ‘committing a punishable offense’, according to section 3 of the Epidemic Diseases Act.
While there has been a sense of compliance with this rule in general so far, especially with the government as well as civil society constantly explaining the need to keep the mask on, there are a few who think that this rule has no efficacy because masks are of no use in the fight against COVID-19. They are India’s anti-masks and anti-vaccines protesters.
Although a much smaller group than their American counterpart — who have made their concerns about precautionary measures against COVID-19 an important poll agenda ahead of voting- in India too, the anti-masks and anti-vaccine movements are gathering steam with protests being organized in several cities. Most recently, on October 2, a group of protesters demonstrated on Mumbai’s Marine drive against the ‘mandatory’ use of mask , and a ‘mandatory vaccine’ (although no such rule has been announced by the government so far).
One of the protestors’ at the venue was Yohan Tengra, an Accounts and Finance graduate, who is currently a research consultant at a Pune-based Functional Nutrition Clinic. Tengra explained that the reason he, along with several others, is against the usage of masks is because masks lack efficacy.
“We are against masks because they are not effective. They have downstream health consequences for many. However, if someone wants to exercise their free will and wear masks, it is their choice," said Tengra.
He further added, “There is no policy grade evidence, which is to say that no studies have been done using randomized control trials to show that masks are effective. The only evidence that we have been shown so far is also weak. People are mostly saying, ‘we mandated masks in this country, and cases went down.’ But, these are only circumstantial evidence, and we cannot make out causation from it, because we cannot possibly say that masks caused the rate to get lower."
While these are interesting arguments, it does not necessarily mean other health experts will throw their masks right away, and stop waiting for a vaccine.
Anant Bhan, a researcher of Bioethics and Health Policy at Global Health explained, “One cannot run randomised trials for things where there is a clear element of risk involved. If you want to do a randomised control for understanding the efficacy of masks, then you need to have a no mask control group, which will inevitable put the lives of the people in that group at risk. It is a classic example, like whether parachutes work or not… no one has ever conducted an RCT for verifying that."
Bhan further added, “The point is there is a lot of evidence to demonstrate that masks protect you, they are not 100 percent efficient. But then, what is when it comes to COVID-19?…while wearing a mask may seem like a cumbersome exercise for many, it has to be worn because of the protection it offers. Just like wearing a helmet while driving isn’t particularly convenient for instance, but people wear it, for safety reasons. ]
Tengra has his concerns about vaccines too. “Health ministry came out and said last week that they want to use vaccination as a way to let people travel, like some kind of an immunity passport. So, what they are essentially saying is that if you have a vaccine you are allowed to go everywhere and implicitly making it obvious that if you do not have the vaccine, your travel would be limited."
It is not an ill-placed concern concedes Bhan, albeit he adds that it is a little too early to worry about what might or might not happen in the future. “Of course, there are some valid concerns about vaccines, but those concerns should be about safety, efficacy, and whether enough time is being given for science to give us the right data and that is a question that all of us should ask when the time comes. But, conspiracy theories don’t help. We have to ask the right kind of questions when it comes to vaccines, " said Bhan.
Delhi-based doctor, Tarun Kothari, director at Indo-American health care, and the author of self-published book, Corona Pandemic Scandal: The biggest Scam In The History of Mankind who is also a part of the anti-masks and anti-vaccine movement explained why he thinks masks are redundant.
“There are pores in masks through which air circulates. For an N95 mask, the pore size is somewhere between 300 to 800 nanometres, while for common masks (like cloth masks) the pore size is above 1000 nanometre. However, the size of the coronavirus is 100 nanometres. So, how do you think with those big pores, the masks will be able to obstruct the entry of the infection?" asked Kothari.
He further stated that while wearing masks the oxygen inside the mask decreases and on the other hand the carbon dioxide increases, which further damages our whole system – from our nervous to our respiratory system, and disturbs our body’s PH level.
“The chances of COVID-19 tests giving false results is somewhere between 2 to 40 percent too, be it the PCR test or the antibody test." said Kothari adding that “Corona is a simple flu, it is not pathological." “Also, in India itself, we have seen recovery rates as high as 80 percent. So, where the recovery rates are as high as 80 percent, are vaccines necessary? And that too vaccine for all?" asked Kothari.
While it is true that recovery rates have been high in India, in the past few weeks, the death toll is also an astounding number, which clearly indicates that many lives have been already lost to the disease, even though we want to strain our eyes and only focus on the positive.
Feroze Mithiborwala, National Convener of Bharat Bachao Andolan and a researcher on International affairs is also a supporter of the anti-masks and anti-vaccine movement. Mithiborwala pointed out that among the deaths that have happed so far those caused by COVID-19 is far less on the charts compared to heart attack, cancer, TB, Hepatitis etcetera. He also claimed that most of the deaths happening from COVID-19 are co-morbidity cases, among the older population.
Mithiborwala explained why taking a law-and-order approach and going for a lockdown has not helped in getting rid of COVID-19.
“A total lockdown is no way to fight a pandemic, it should have been targeted lockdown. You don’t shut down the entire economy. There was no need to shut down the entire country, and the rural economy. This lockdown has shown a massive transfer of wealth to the upper section of the society on one hand, and growing unemployment, and joblessness on the other. The working people are all suffering," he added.