“I have seen several people on Marine Drive not following any COVID-19 protocols or social distancing norms. There are checkpoints in place, but the police can only do so much. Many individuals just wear their masks when they are near the checkpoints or see a cop coming their way. However, those masks quickly come off when they realize that no one is monitoring them. Their behaviour baffles me; a battle against the COVID-19 pandemic cannot be won if people continue to be so callous,” pointed out Poulami Mukhopadhyay, a 33-year-old Lower Parel resident.
The battle against COVID-19 is indeed shaping up to be a difficult one for Mumbai. As the city navigates through the second wave, the government is bringing in a list of restrictions and protocols to control the rising COVID-19 cases, which on Friday was at 3,063 — the highest single-day spike in the total number of cases since the pandemic arrived last March. Media reports claimed that on the same day, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) made negative RT-PCR test a pre-requisite to entering malls. Those who do not carry the test reports will have to undergo rapid antigen tests from 22 March onwards. Simultaneously, the vaccination process is ongoing in full swing, with talks of making vaccines available at home also taking place.
However, despite the new additions to the list of COVID-19 rules and the fear of another lockdown looming over the city, the complacency of Mumbaikars towards following COVID-19 protocols has been worrying. Videos of buzzing markets where no social distancing norms are being followed are circulating online, restaurants and their clients are being fined, and celebrities are being pulled up for not following COVID-19 rules.
“The way people are flouting rules makes me wonder why should I care so much? We need exactly one weak link to circulate the virus, and if there are so many weak links, how will I being cautious, make an impact?” asked Mukhopadhyay. It is a valid question; however, it isn’t the only question that one needs to ask under the current situation.
Has the availability of vaccines made people more complacent, or are they simply too mentally exhausted to care about following protocols? Do they not perceive the apparent risk of contracting the virus anymore, or are they so restless to get back to ‘normal’ that they do not care? Are they not afraid of the virus anymore? There are several other questions that the lets-get-on-with-our-lives attitude of many undaunted Mumbaikars give rise to. However, mental health experts, as well as sociologists, claim that the answers to these questions aren’t all that simple.
Corona is A Known Devil Now
There can be a combination of factors that might propel people towards complacency, pointed out Natasha Mehta, a Mumbai based Senior Counselling Psychologist.
“Vaccination has definitely brought power back to people’s lives and is giving them a sense of control… Therefore, the fear psychosis which dominated everyone for the most of 2020 is obviously changing,” she said.
Mehta explained that at the onset of the pandemic, we had very little information about the virus, and therefore, our lack of knowledge made us highly fearful of it. However, as the last year passed by, we have amassed a great deal of knowledge on the subject. The graphs and reports from India have shown that despite a large number of cases, mortality rates aren’t very high and recovery rates are considerably good. Therefore, many aren’t taking the second wave seriously because they do not perceive it to be as grave as the first wave (even though the implications of rising cases are likely to be similar).
“In most cases, people think of COVID-19 as nothing more than strong flu,” said Mehta. “Overestimating their own immunity is also responsible for the nonchalant behaviour of many individuals…now they have learned to live with the virus. And, people believe that they have a better chance of surviving the virus, as compared to earlier when there was absolute uncertainty because it was a very new situation for all of us,” said Mehta.
The Peer Pressure is Real
Several people have become overtly relaxed about the COVID-19 protocols, and they tend to judge and often ridicule those who continue to follow the rules. There are relatives and friends who would make fun of you if you do not go out as often or are too concerned about social distancing. If you wear gloves on your hands and use a face shield on top of face mask, you are likely to invite strange glances on the street, and if you are the only one wearing a mask during a conference, you might feel awkward at being outnumbered by those who are clearly violating rules.
“The mask-wearing, hand sanitizing should become our second nature moving forward, and that can only happen if we remove the stigma associated with them. The government should start campaigns that make wearing masks a cool thing, something like a style statement so that everyone gets on board.” Claimed Mehta. She said that these protocols should be promoted in a positive way. For instance, rather than talking about masks as tools for combating illness, if they are advertised as instruments of wellness, they will be accepted by the public far more quickly.
“We have to make mask wearing a cool thing so that people don’t find it tedious to wear a mask… Currently, masks challenge our sense of freedom and bind us into a controlled life, and deep down, we all want to drop that life, and are craving for freedom after a year of living in confinements,” said Mehta.
The Emotional Exhaustion
Priyanka Jain, a Versova resident and communication professional, told News18, “As humans, there is obviously a tendency to want to meet people and socialize, go out on dates, catch up with friends and family. Our social connection is the fabric of our lives, and a year is too long to stay away from that fabric.”
“I don’t necessarily think that the reason for people’s complacency is that they don’t care about protocols altogether. I feel they think of the necessary precautions when they step out. But, as soon as they get into groups and gatherings or go to restaurants, they remove their masks because they are trying to find a semblance of normalcy that they were used to… so, somewhere, I think we all slip. When you get too settled in the company of your friends, you don’t want to keep the mask on because it feels like a hindrance. It is not possible to be vigilant and alert 24*7, especially when in the back of your head; all you wish to do is get back to normal,” Jain explained.
Clinical psychologist Priyanka Varma also agreed with Jain. Varma explained that there is a threshold till which individuals can neglect their social needs, and for most Mumbaikars, who have lived through the very uncertain 2020, that threshold has been reached.
“The phase of lockdown was also emotionally traumatic for many. Apart from the actual trauma that the people may have experienced in their homes, there was also the trauma of constant confinement and the feeling of not being able to experience anything… which can be very emotionally draining,” she said.
“Most of us survived the pandemic because we took one day at a time. However, during that period, we also forgot what it meant to be free. But, now that we have got an understanding of what our lives were like and what it can be like, it would be hard for us to adjust to another lockdown,” added Varma.
“The emotional fatigue and claustrophobia are only beginning to settle in for many. For a year, people have put their physiological need before their mental health, and it is finally beginning to take a toll on their minds. Therefore, the act of not following protocols is almost like a rebellious act. It is their way of saying that they will go out and be free. But no one is thinking logically and acknowledging the fact that COVID-19 has not gone anywhere, and the pandemic is far from over,” explained Varma.
The Youth Factor
The trend of throwing caution to the wind is mainly seen in the youth so far. Even though there are several senior citizens who have chosen not to take the vaccine, most of them understand the implications of constantly rising numbers. They are very wary of the callousness displayed by the younger population.
Anish Poojara, a 63-year-old businessman and a resident of Napean Sea Road, has already taken his first vaccine dose and is waiting for the second one. However, he explained that just because he is vaccinated doesn’t mean he will give up on his civic duties.
“As long as people keep behaving carelessly and keep spreading the virus, I will have to behave carefully. Just because I have my vaccine shots, it doesn’t mean that I stop caring about others altogether,” said Poojara.
“Younger people are facilitating the spread of the virus more, by going out unnecessarily and what they are completely ignoring is that while their young bodies can fight the virus, they are putting at risk those who are still going through the vaccination process,” he added.
Sociologist Gaurang Jani also lamented the indifference and the unengaged response of the youth to the COVID-19 pandemic. He said that most schools and colleges failed to sensitize and involve this very important age group in the fight against COVID, and now they are contributing to the spread rather than deterring it.
“If we talk about the young generation, in particular, they have been continuing their studies online during the entire pandemic. However, simultaneously, they should have also been reminded of COVID19 precautions, which simply didn’t happen. Most institutions failed to create awareness and initiative among this population,” said Jani.
Jani pointed out that it also did not help that they had only a few role models to look up to. While everyone preached about following COVID-19 rules, few public personalities led by example, setting a bad precedence for the youth to follow.
The Struggle for Existence
Jani pointed out that the entire middle class shrunk considerably during last year, and therefore, it isn’t hard to infer that there must be many who had been pushed below the poverty line. Those people whose lives were completely destroyed by the pandemic, masks, and sanitizers are distant thoughts as they struggle to make ends meet. They are people who have complied with every rule in the initial phase of the lockdown and are still trying to abide by the rules because for them to spare Rs 200 or 300 fine for not wearing a mask is also a luxury.
Therefore, restrictions and protocols that are coming into place should take them into account and ensure that they do not lose their livelihoods. The government needs creative solutions to be able to restrict the certain population, who are spreaders, but also at the same time facilitate the economic activities of the marginalized because they are not in a position to take another lockdown.
Several other factors have to be taken into consideration while implementing restrictions. For example, the population density of certain areas is so high that it is impossible to introduce social distancing norms in those places, also shutting down buses might harm the economically struggling class and not effectively stop the spread of the virus. A certain balance has to be reached in coming up with solutions to deal with the recent spike.