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Home > News> Big Story > How affluent Indians became covid superspreaders

How affluent Indians became covid superspreaders

Middle- and high-income individuals and families repeatedly breached pandemic protocols for frivolous reasons. The result was infections

Patrons workout at a gym in Mumbai in October 2020 without wearing face-masks.
Patrons workout at a gym in Mumbai in October 2020 without wearing face-masks. (Hindustan Times)

In mid-March, The Calcutta Swimming Club hosted an inter-club darts tournament in Kolkata. It was a lively affair, with dart stations and a bar set up in an air-conditioned hall. Waiters in uniform, with their names embroidered above their shirt pockets and masks carefully pulled over noses and mouths, ferried cocktails, beers and snacks. The contestants, and those viewing the competition, did not exercise as much caution. Masks resting on their chins or tucked away in their pockets, they tossed darts and shared laughs.

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Just days after the tournament, some of the participants tested positive for covid-19. As a precautionary measure, several clubs had asked their team members to take a test. The Calcutta Swimming Club, the host, too asked its players to undergo RT-PCR tests. It also requested the participants to stay away from the club for 10-14 days, regardless of the result.

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Within a week of the tournament, there came a flurry of covid-positive results. According to a text message received by several members of the clubs, 54 participants had tested positive for covid-19—20 from the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, nine from the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, six each from The Saturday Club and Calcutta International Club, four from Dalhousie Institute, two each from the Tollygunge Club and Calcutta Punjab Club, and five from the host club, a participant who received the text confirmed to Lounge.

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Last August, when the country was coming out of the pandemic lockdown in phases, Jaipur-based Sidhartha Mehta, 44, and 15 of his friends, including their spouses, met at a resort 45 minutes outside the city to celebrate Friendship Day. Ten people from the group contracted the virus. It then spiralled into a mini superspreader event. In Mehta’s household, nine people tested positive. This included his wife, children, septuagenarian parents, household help and driver. Each of those infected at the meet-up passed on the infection to at least one more person in their households.

Also Read: How two masks can double the protection against covid-19

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From Unlock 1.0 onwards, middle-class Indians across the country have been getting together and flouting covid-19 guidelines. The reasons for doing so have ranged from watching cricket to holding weddings; from celebrating birthdays and festivals to hosting poker nights and weekend soirees at farmhouses and holiday homes. Many of these turned into personal superspreader events.

Just like the darts tournament at The Calcutta Swimming Club. Just like the party on the outskirts of Jaipur.

A vast majority of low-income people in the country often couldn’t afford to stay at home and maintain social distance. Every day spent at home meant a day without pay. Their cramped and poor living conditions didn’t help even when they stayed put. But many in India’s middle- and high- income classes had the means, and the choice, to abide by the guidelines. And yet, they didn’t. This is their story.

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The staff of a hospital with a message to stay indoors, in March 2020.
The staff of a hospital with a message to stay indoors, in March 2020. (Hindustan Times)

The false notion of a bubble

Why did so many people become so careless? Ambrish Mithal, chairman of endocrinology and diabetes at Max Healthcare, Delhi, says much of this behaviour stems from a refusal to take any responsibility.

“People belonging to these sections of our society believe that they and their friends are safe as they maintain hygiene and sanitise everything…there is sort of an element of bravado that this can’t happen to us,” says Dr Mithal.

This was exactly what went through the mind of 42-year-old marketing consultant Sooraj when he chose to watch Indian Premier League games in early October with four friends in his man-cave one floor below his flat in south Kolkata. Like several others quoted in this story, he did not want his full name to be used.

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“We five have been friends for more than two decades. We were all staying at home, following covid-19 guidelines, wearing masks when we stepped out, washing hands and sanitising everything and meeting no one else. But then one of us went for a birthday party and came to watch the game. He tested positive for covid-19, so we went for a test,” he says. Sooraj tested positive, along with his wife and mother.

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“People also have a false notion of a ‘bubble,’” says Dr Mithal, adding, “there have been plenty of such instances in Delhi at weddings, birthday parties, vacations and even gatherings for funerals where several members from the group have been infected.”

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Response fatigue

In Jaipur, when Mehta and his friends met to celebrate Friendship Day, it was their first in-person catch-up since the nationwide lockdown was imposed on 24 March last year. “We were very careful as our parents live with us and we didn’t meet anyone for more than four months. After a point, Zoom sessions and video calls don’t cut it. We had had enough. All 16 of us who met for dinner agreed it was about time we met in person,” says Mehta, a wedding planner by profession. Neither he nor his friends still know who was Patient Zero in their group. They suspect that they might have caught the virus from one of the resort staff. Such an assumption is a perfect example of Dr Mithal’s hypothesis that the “It can’t be us” attitude is a prevalent one amongst India’s middle class.

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The reason why Mehta and his friends broke protocol was simply that they were tired of being at home: a form of response fatigue. By October, the World Health Organization (WHO) had noted that people were exhausted and fatigued from following appropriate behaviour.

Also Read: Lessons from the biggest of all pandemics from a 100 years ago

Response fatigue is real, says Anoop Amarnath, head of geriatric medicine at Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, and a member of the Karnataka government’s critical care support unit for covid-19. “It was a huge lifestyle change for people to stay locked in their homes, wearing masks, keeping physical distance and not meeting friends and family. People were waiting to meet and talk to each other. Man is a social animal and if you don’t let him socialise, fatigue is bound to set in,” he says. He adds that such fatigue played a significant part in the covid-19 peaks in September last year.

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In Mumbai, Megha, 36, has been religiously following pandemic guidelines. A freelance assistant director living in Andheri, she ventures out to work for shoots only when she can’t avoid it, always wears a mask when out and carries a bottle of sanitiser. She says she was shocked when a friend told her in August that her family was going to perform Ganesh puja at home. Till then, Megha says, her friend’s family had been very careful. “The family invited their cousins for the puja. There were 10 people in the two-bedroom flat who sat for the puja and then had a meal together. Eight of them tested positive for covid-19 after that puja,” she says, adding that she has heard of many such instances across the state.

If people let their guard down due to fatigue, one reason could be poor communication of rules and time frames. Dr Amarnath says that if there is a definite time frame for behaviour modifications to be followed, then people can be coaxed into doing so. “But when there is no clarity on how long the covid-19 protocol is likely to continue, fatigue is bound to set in. That’s what we have seen as this pandemic unfolds,” he says.

Tourists at the Jal Mahal ki Paal in Jaipur, on New Year's Day, 2021.
Tourists at the Jal Mahal ki Paal in Jaipur, on New Year's Day, 2021. (Getty Images)

When bravado turns into recklessness

Mehta, chastened by his experience and wary of being reinfected, didn’t step out for either a coffee or a meal until December, when the covid-19 infections seemed to be on a downward trajectory. His work as a wedding planner had resumed in November, when the wedding season kicked in. In the first few weddings that he organised, Mehta says the guests were nervous and wary and kept their masks on till food or drinks were served. “By December, the fear of coronavirus was on the wane. After a point, mask was just a protocol, sanitisers placed across the venue were barely used…covid-19 was not being taken seriously any more. People were saying, jo hoga dekha jayega,” he recalls.

Also Read: Should you be taking a flight during the pandemic?

In Kolkata, stock market investor Pavan, who had maintained strict covid-appropriate behaviour till November, held a puja in his office to celebrate Diwali. Members of his family from two separate households attended the puja in person, while office staff attended virtually via a video link. After the puja, Pavan and three others in his household tested positive.There were five covid-19 cases in the other household. “It was just our immediate family, so once we entered the office the masks were off,” says Pavan. Like Mehta, he too suspects they caught the virus from an “outsider”. “It couldn’t have been one of us.”

Such risky behaviour was on the rise across India from Diwali and probably peaked around the turn of the year, doctors say. Over the winter months, many middle-class Indians travelled for vacations, hosted parties at farmhouses and resorts, started going to restaurants or just got together to celebrate. “Recklessness around the New Year contributed to our covid-19 cases,” claims Dr Mithal, who didn’t travel or meet friends for more than a year.

The Pandemic isn’t ‘over’

Dr Amarnath says that through the first three months of this year, people felt emboldened by the drop in case numbers and news of vaccinations. Many came to the conclusion that the pandemic was coming to an end and let their guard down, he says, adding that this contributed to the second wave we are currently witnessing.

“I thought covid-19 was almost over. All nightclubs, pubs and bars were almost as busy as pre-covid times and the events at Kolkata’s clubs were seeing great participation. Also, my parents had got the vaccine already, so I felt it was safe. I went for the darts tournament despite knowing that it was being held indoors,” says a participant of the tournament in Kolkata.

In March, Adarsh, 33, who runs a family business in Durgapur, West Bengal, decided to visit his uncle in Bokaro, Jharkhand, with his younger brother and sister-in-law for Holi. During the day-long trip, they stopped at a highway restaurant for a meal and celebrated Holi with cousins, returning home in the evening. Shortly afterwards, Adarsh started running a temperature. He tested positive for covid-19. His octogenarian grandfather, who had received his first vaccine shot in February, also developed a fever and tested positive. Adarsh’s brother and parents followed suit. In Bokaro, two of his cousins also contracted the virus. And the spread didn’t end there. Adarsh had met a friend after returning from Bokaro—the friend also tested positive.

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It is entirely possible that a variety of factors played a role in this vicious new wave of covid-19 rampaging through the country. But while looking at the larger causes, we may forget that the seemingly small actions of individuals probably played a significant role. One thing is inescapable: Countless affluent middle-class Indians chose to breach the covid-19 protocols often and for frivolous reasons. Many of these breaches ended up having serious consequences.

Why did they do it? Was it arrogance? Dr Mithal feels that Indians from this strata of society simply aren’t used to being told what to do. Even during a deadly pandemic.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

  • FIRST PUBLISHED
    26.04.2021 | 07:00 AM IST
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