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Unmasking India

In a crowded country such as ours, the sight of hordes of unmasked people – even though we had to pay a heavy price in terms of human lives – shows public apathy of gargantuan proportions. And the governments that turn a blind eye to it betray equal unconcern. The received wisdom is that masks are most useful in crowded and indoor spaces, and that it is important to wear well-fitted masks and to continue education efforts to increase adherence. Whether most people become law-abiding out of habit or fear of consequences, to avert chaos or all of them depends upon both a culture of discipline and consent. The disorderly urban chaos that defines us is due as much to the lack of civic discipline as to a state wary of imposing it

PRASENJIT CHOWDHURY | Kolkata |

Molière’s play Tartuffe (1664) was about the unmasking of a religious hypocrite. The character whom Tartuffe had duped exclaimed: “What? Can it be that such a pious face Conceals a heart so false, a soul so base?” (Tartuffe, Act v, Scene 1, 1.) and was advised: “Strip off the mask and learn what virtue means” (v, 1, 1622). But we’ve the habit of putting on masks, in epidemics and out of them.

In Africa and in many parts of Asia, decorative masks are a striking feature of the performing arts. In Japan, an aristocratic form of theatre known as the Noh theatre brought the art of mask to great refinement.

In European traditions, the commedia dell’arte, a tradition developed from the Roman comedy by Italian and French touring troupes who were in their heyday during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries used masks regularly to portray fixed social and moral types such as innocent maiden, lustful old man, bragging soldier, mischievous servant, cheating doctor, miserly father, scolding wife with poignant effects often amplifying their characteristics.

In India, we have seen many Chau dancers wear masks in most traditions and depict episodes from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as well as other religious stories. Masks have been used in some of the richest forms of creative expression in Kerala in the celebration of temple festivals and the enactment of rituals for ancestor worship and healing.

The theyyam, or ritual performance, patronised by landed gentry, brings into play the creation of mythical characters with the use of palm leaves, straw, paint, and facial as well as body masks, enhancing the viewers’ entry into a mythical world.

During the 1918 influenza epidemic the mask-wearing became, according to historian Nancy Tomes, “an emblem of public-spiritedness and discipline.” A pneumonic plague epidemic in China in 1910-11 led to widespread mask-wearing. The fear of germ-warfare after the communists came to power in 1949 prompted many to wear masks, as much as the blanket of smog darkening many Chinese cities did later. In the 21st century, the outbreak of SARS epidemic and avian influenza intensified mask-wearing.

But when Covid19 struck us, mask-wearing again became the ubiquitous shield against a deadly virus. And this act of covering our face has not only ushered us into a surreal world of faceless morons but also become a totem for the borderland between the dead and the living.

Now the question is: should the act of wearing a mask be transformed into a ritual? Promaskers in America insist that wearing a face-covering in public spaces aren’t just about protecting other people ~ it’s also about protecting America’s reopening, jobs and manufacturing industry. Medical groups have been pitching for the reintroduction of rules to force people to wear masks.

The British Medical Association accused the government of being “wilfully negligent”. Tired of putting on masks, anti-maskers complain that the mask feels stifling, suctioned to one’s face and makes breathing difficult. British Health Minister Maggie Throup told MPs: “We believe that people can make informed choices. And I think as people see the levels [of cases] rising, then
they will look at the guidance again and perhaps make [the] decision to wear their face coverings in more venues.”

At some of the popular marquees in Kolkata, such as Singhi Park, Sribhumi Sporting, Ekdalia Evergreen during Durga puja this year, or at Delhi’s Sadar Bazar ahead of Diwali, the sight of swarms of irresponsible revellers and shoppers moving and jostling for space and going maskless, totally oblivious to the threat of the still raging pandemic, might prompt one to ponder whether threat and only threat of physical punishment or a hefty fine is the sole deterrent against such kind of cavalier civil ‘disobedience’.

Compared to India’s lax public behaviour and little enforcement of Covid rules, we hear about movements against a clampdown on civil liberties, anti-vaxxers rebelling against vaccine mandates elsewhere such as in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Italy and Switzerland in Europe and Australia. In the Indian context, such excessive use of force stems from the assumption of a colonial ruler ~ that is, until and unless one holds a gun to the head of a person, the majority will not abide by a law.

That the people generally are not ‘right-minded’ until they are forced to conform is an ugly presumption, but depending upon their ‘good ense’ is too utopian and wishful a piece of thinking for a law to succeed until it is enforced. If anyone thinks in spirit of the above thought, going by the abominable crowd behaviour during the festivals flouting Covid restrictions and bursting crackers despite court strictures, one cannot be faulted.

The spectacle of a majority of people moving around in a marketplace or a shopping mall without a mask on, is now added to the timeworn sight of people spitting globs of spittle or phlegm or urinating or defecating in public, despite the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) doing the rounds. Whether Indians are more lawless than other nations or whether there are variations in compliance of federal laws across states is subject of another study.

Besides, however much one bristles at the idea of people indulging in hujoog ~ a Bengali word for the tendency to be seized by the occasion ~ moving without a mask is not a culpable offence. Not all people in the USA, the UK and elsewhere are very keen to put on masks as well. So the popular diffidence in putting on a mask cannot be technically linked to lawlessness.

But even if one condones the act of moving without masks on the ground that the social norm of universal masking was not built through well-crafted messaging plus permanent education campaigns on proper mask wearing, our governments cannot be spared.

While we were taught that the case for mask-wearing is strongest in high-risk scenarios such as crowded spaces, indoor venues, and unventilated places, we were not told as volubly that it is the weakest in marginal-risk scenarios such as outdoor and uncrowded environments where distancing and ventilation are possible.

Along with anti-maskers, there is a relatively small motley of anti-vaxxers. Gandhi, for instance, was opposed to vaccination as he thought it hindered discipline over the body and control over the mind. In Hind Swaraj Gandhi argued that if the doctor did not intervene in the body ~ with drugs or vaccines ~ ‘nature’ would do its work ‘and I would have acquired mastery over myself ’.

It is also possible that the majority of anti-vaxxers do not believe in the efficacy of the vaccines to control the outbreak and believe in the theory of self-discipline of the body. The governments cannot impose compliance unless people are taken into confidence.

Evaluating the spread of influenza, the American Public Health Association found in December 1918 that the evidence “as to beneficial results consequent on the enforced wearing of masks by the entire population at all times was contradictory,” and thus “the widespread adoption of this practice” was not recommended. Could we let the guard down? Could we unmask ourselves?

As India is yet half the way to getting two jabs into its adult population of about 900 million voters (according to the voter’s list), and voluntary push for vaccination is envisaged as the way out of the pandemic, letting the guard down may be counter-productive. In a crowded country such as ours, the sight of hordes of unmasked people even though we had to pay a heavy price in terms of human lives shows public apathy of gargantuan proportions.

And the governments that turn a blind eye to it betray equal unconcern. The received wisdom is that masks are most useful in crowded and indoor spaces, and that it is important to wear well-fitted masks and to continue education efforts to increase adherence.

Whether most people become law-abiding out of habit or fear of consequences, to avert chaos or all of them depends upon both a culture of discipline and consent. The disorderly urban chaos that defines us is due as much to the lack of civic discipline as to a state wary of imposing it.

(The writer is a Kolkata-based commentator on politics, development and cultural issue)