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Opinion | Covid-19 and the rise of the Indian anti-maskers

The anti-mask posturing that’s catching up in India is a precursor to the real fight on the horizon—against the anti-vaxxers

In arguing against masks and vaccines, the upwardly mobile Indian is imitating his American cousin yet again.                                                   Credit: Getty Images
In arguing against masks and vaccines, the upwardly mobile Indian is imitating his American cousin yet again. Credit: Getty Images

A friend in the US recently asked me, “So how crazy is it over there?"

“Well, social distancing is not in Indian genes," I replied. “But at least we are not running around in the middle of a pandemic claiming we are standing up for liberty and freedom by not wearing masks."

At the time, a woman in the San Francisco Bay Area was in the news for coughing on a bartender who asked her to put on her mask. Another woman in San Jose had been caught on camera coughing on a child after a social distancing dispute in a yogurt parlour. On the flip side, a pastor in Michigan had said a woman coughed directly into his face at a pizzeria because she was irate that he wasn’t wearing a mask.

In comparison, India seemed a haven of relative rationality. The Indian prime minister wasn’t pooh-poohing science and actively stoking a to-mask-or-not-to-mask fight for political gain even if one of his ministers was out there launching immunity papads to fight covid-19. And thankfully it had not turned into a Bharatiya Janata Party vs Congress issue, unlike the US, where it quickly calcified into a Democrat-Republican issue. And then a video of Indian anti-maskers demanding azadi from masks went viral. “Damn," said a friend. “They are now in India as well."

Since then this group of Indians protesting any mandate to wear masks has got way more publicity than warranted. The “doctor" whose advice they were spouting has been shown to be someone who claims a PhD from a university in Zambia, one that’s not recognized by Zambia itself. At one time he peddled memory improvement courses, then he switched tack and claimed that neither AIDS nor diabetes were real diseases. Now he has latched on to the anti-mask mantra.

Snake oil salesmen are not new or unusual in India. What’s fascinating are those who have climbed on to their bandwagon. They come across as earnest, educated, reasonable people, heroic Davids resisting the Goliath of public opinion. “We are not against people wearing masks," one says on a video produced by InUth, “what we are against is mandatory masks." They think masks are infringing on their freedom. They cite studies to buttress their case—one from the Annals Of Internal Medicine and a World Health Organization (WHO) report, even though these studies and reports were retracted or revised. Their arguments are familiar, a mishmash of half-baked science and anecdotes helped along by WHO’s own clumsy, often self-contradictory record in handling the pandemic. I was struck, though, by the books on the shelves behind the anti-maskers. Two titles jumped out at me—The Plague by Albert Camus and Inventing The AIDS Virus by molecular biologist Peter Duesberg. I could not spot an Ayn Rand, though it might well have been there.

In some ways, the anti-maskers seem to be wannabe Americans parroting the same lines about personal liberty and citing the same discredited studies. “We are not anti-masks. We are not for masks. We are for choice," a protester in Wisconsin told the media.

In the US, people hold up signs that say “My Body, My Choice". But the larger point was trying to paint liberals who support a woman’s right to choose as hypocrites when it came to other kinds of choices.

The equivalency is nonsensical, false, even malicious. As journalist and cultural critic Marcie Bianco writes in Think for the US’ National Broadcasting Company (NBC), it collapses a fundamental difference between the two—“the coronavirus is a public health crisis; abortion is a personal, medical issue." Or to put it even more bluntly, unlike a virus, you cannot “catch" an abortion just because you are around someone who has had one. Are masks foolproof? Obviously not, but neither are seat belts, and we have been fine surrendering that personal bodily liberty in the larger interest of public safety.

In India, similarly, the azadi slogans that rang through the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act protests are being repurposed to demand azadi from masks. It sets up the same false equivalency—how can those who demand azadi in the name of everything from LGBTQ+ rights to freedom of speech now suddenly turn on those who want azadi from masks? It’s the same reason—my right to live free from discrimination and prejudice does not harm someone. Wearing a mask is meant more to minimize your risk to others around you than to you. It’s specious to dismiss masks as pointless because we live with so many other diseases around us, diseases like tuberculosis that kill many more than covid-19 has. Tuberculosis is curable. The fact that so many Indians die from it is because they don’t have the resources to access treatment or stay the course. The anxiety about covid-19 should be a wake-up call for the public health failures related to TB, instead of TB becoming an excuse to ignore covid-19.

Treating it like an imposition on oneself is simply saying that your individual comfort ranks far higher than the well-being of everyone around you. It is an argument born out of selfishness, not principle, like the young man in America who partied maskless in Fire Island in New York even though he lived with immuno-compromised parents—a father who had undergone heart surgery and a mother who was going through chemotherapy.

Ultimately, the anti-mask posturing is just a stepping stone to the real fight on the horizon—vaccines. In the US, anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have long been rife even though America’s founding father Benjamin Franklin once lamented not vaccinating his son, who eventually died of smallpox. American celebrities from Donald Trump to Robert De Niro have long expressed doubts, some of them convinced that vaccines are linked to autism. That was based on a 1990s study which was eventually fully retracted, but the seeds of doubt had been planted. In 2018, data released by the Centers for Disease Control in the US showed that while immunization rates remained high overall, the percentage of children under 2 who had not received any vaccination quadrupled in the previous 17 years. Diseases such as measles have returned to the US, like a 2017 outbreak in Minnesota especially within the Somali-American community, where vaccination rates had dropped precipitously. Meanwhile, Africa has just been declared free of wild polio thanks to vaccines but that will probably do little to shake anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

In India, we haven’t had that kind of anti-vaxxer herd mentality. Indians of a certain age will remember the city corporation sending out the “vaccination didis and dadas" who went door to door vaccinating us against smallpox. I have heard that our old maid would go hide whenever the lady showed up and would be hauled in weeping and wailing to get her shots. But eventually we all did. The shots would ache for a few days. Some of us got fever. But we believed that it was for the greater good, gritted our teeth and took our shots.

One of India’s most eminent virologists, Gagandeep Kang, the first Indian woman to be made a fellow of London’s Royal Society, says that when she was a medical student 40 years ago, vaccine superstitions were common, especially among the less educated. “At that time diseases like measles that caused rashes were called ‘Amma visitations’," she remembers. Her teachers told her a form of branding was often offered as a treatment. So doctors trying to persuade people to get vaccinated would pretend the inoculation scars were a new and improved form of branding.

But she worries. “Where we are seeing a lack of confidence in vaccines now is in educated populations that have an incomplete understanding of how immune systems work." Basically, the upwardly mobile Indian is imitating his American cousin yet again. And given our political leaders’ eagerness to tomtom unproven gaumutra and papad “cures", science has its work cut out.

I recently encountered someone in Kolkata, a jovial man in his 60s, who refuses to wear masks because he sincerely believes these are just something governments use to placate an anxious public. In his head he knows better. Sadly, there’s still no vaccination against wilful ignorance.

Or as Camus wrote in The Plague: “The most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill."

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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