India is approaching the desired destination of the ‘COVID-19 plateau’ at a snail’s pace. Currently, we have crossed 60 lakh cases, and although the recovery rates are high, the elusive ‘plateau’ is nowhere in sight.

Under such circumstances, as we navigate through the ‘unlock’ phase, the logical response from the educated, urban ‘middle and upper class’ public would have been a heightened sense of alertness in taking precautions, like in Japan, where the population has accepted the usage of masks wholeheartedly and reduced the number of cases drastically. Following social distancing norms to the tee should have also become a habit by now. However, news reports suggest, things are playing out very differently in India’s urban pockets, where COVID-19 cases are still higher in numbers.

People are queuing up outside Mumbai eateries, and flouting social distancing norms every other day. In Kolkata, many have returned to their mall trips, and shopping shenanigans as Durga Puja approaches. Several Delhiites are not following mask rules in public spaces or are not using them properly because of which thousands are being fined every month. This attitude is also common in other big cities of India, including Bangalore and Chennai, despite a study suggesting that masks used properly by everyone can prevent up to 200,000 deaths in India.

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It is tempting to call these people ‘Covidiots’ and dismiss them. But, alienating them only enhances the risk of the disease for our communities, so understanding their impulses, the reasons behind their callousness, and finding ways to bring them into the fold is crucial if we ever want to see the top of that ‘plateau’. After months of lockdown, and no deterioration in COVID cases, a fatalism has set in among many. While several were gasping as 10, 20, and 100 COVID-19 cases were reported in the early months of lockdown, now they have stopped counting the deaths, or the cases. But, the utter disregard for social distancing norms, or using masks doesn’t stem from that fatalism.

Lack of Civic Sense:

Gujarat Based sociologist Gaurang Jani explained that the main reason for such carelessness on the part of many civilians is the lack of a strong set of civic values in the middle class. “In the past few decades, many urban dwellers have acquired the economic power to join the growing middle class. They have worked hard towards gaining an education as a means to ensure better income in the future. The ‘middle class’ has evolved as an important vote bank too. But, their civic sense or the sense of social responsibility has not grown parallelly with their pockets.” he said.

“Therefore, there is no sense of community bonding among them, because they have not been taught to be good citizens; they do not care to wear the mask for ensuring the well being of a stranger on the street, or in the bus… and many of these are youngsters who have strong immunity as it is, so they don’t think COVID-19 would impact them,” said Jani. The sociologist lamented that educators, academicians, in fact, the entire education system have failed to inculcate a sense of civic responsibility among the younger generation.

Consumerism and the need for instant gratification:

Another reason for thoughtlessness towards any preventive measure is our need for instant gratification, which has been fueled by our consumeristic lifestyles. “We are consumers first, and then civilians. So, the need to return to a shop where we find the kind of things we like, or going to an eatery to satisfy the need for a particular kind of pastry takes precedence in our thought process, rather than thinking that it is not something worth taking a risk and venturing out for,” pointed out Jani.

Collective Amnesia:

Delhi-based psychologist, Dr Manish Jain claimed that this complacency, although dangerous is not out of the ordinary. “The trend seen in chronic diseases is that beyond a certain period of time people find it difficult to follow dietary or lifestyle modification. Likewise, for Covid-19 also since it has been a long time people have been observing precautions there is a tendency to get complacent,” said Jain.

“Psychologically a fear/belief system develops with reinforcement (positive/ negative). Since people have seen the kind of good recovery rates in India there is a tendency to get complacent. But there is a need to remind them regularly how every case is different and how every individual is important,” he added.

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What people are also not apprehending is that just become the lockdown is over, doesn’t mean the threat of the virus is over, said Anant Bhan, a researcher of Bioethics and Health Policy at Global Health. “People need to recognize the risk that they are exposing themselves, their families, and other community members. The number of cases has increased, so the likelihood of anyone coming across a person who is carrying the infection has also increased drastically. Now, with enhanced mobility, people are also bringing the disease to their own homes, and it is spreading from urban regions to rural sectors.” said Bhan.

Not a law-and-order problem

“Unfortunately, in India, the way the government dealt with the pandemic in the initial months was with a lockdown, which was a law-and-order response. What would have been ideal, instead, was a public health response, grounded in behavioral sciences,” explained Bhan, pointing out why this kind of response has impacted the psyche of the public adversely. The researcher claimed that the public views wearing a mask as a legal protocol for which they can be fined rather than a need to enhance survival chances of themselves, as well as that of others. Therefore, the moment the police are not around to supervise or pull them up for flouting rules, they just go ahead and take their masks off, because they feel they won’t get caught now.

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Dr Anil Sethi, a Life coach & wellness expert, explained that the situation is not going to change any time soon but, “while there are certain norms to be followed while going out, it doesn’t mean people should just avoid venturing out altogether and remain cooped up in their houses. That is not the solution because it can cause tremendous strain on their mental health.”

“We just need to follow social distancing norms, but no one is asking people to emotionally distance themselves from their loved ones, or not visit them. Now that the lockdown is over, they can visit friends and family, mingle in their bio-bubble but the primary emphasis in doing all this should always be the need to follow the necessary precautions,” added Sethi.

Government alone cannot manage the apathy that is at the display on a regular basis, which is why a community-driven approach is necessary to tackle those who continue to act callously during this pandemic. NGOs, and corporates too, should get involved in spreading messages of social distancing, and other necessary precautions. Behavioural changes are hard to bring about, but with the right kind of nudges, it is not impossible.