The Hindu Editorial Analysis
30 April 2021

1) To stop a third wave, India has to mask up

Public health measures that work best are those that the people voluntarily adopt, drastically reducing transmission

GS 3: Public Health


Context:

  • As the smoke from countless funeral pyres rises above our cities, and desperately sick people line the corridors and wards of our hospitals seeking beds, medication and oxygen to relieve their virus-damaged lungs, it is difficult to see a way out of the worst crisis India has faced since the plagues and famines of the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • The anaemic pace of the government’s vaccination drive is unlikely to slow the ferocity of this second wave of the pandemic, which epidemiological modellers predict could peak by the middle of May and gradually decline.

Waves across the globe

  • The United States has had three distinct waves since last March, as has Brazil.

  • The United Kingdom had a small first wave, followed by nearly four months when cases were low and the virus seemed to be disappearing.

    • This was followed by two explosive waves, which only subsided after a lockdown and an aggressive vaccination campaign in which 95% of all those over the age of 50 have been vaccinated to date, with the entire adult population to be vaccinated by the end of summer.

  • South Africa saw a first wave peaking last August, followed by a second wave that began around November, and peaked in the first week of January.

  • A second wave in India was almost a given. And once this wave recedes, it is highly likely that a third wave will build up, unless active measures are taken to stop it building up.

  • But given India’s population, the slow pace of vaccination, inelastic vaccine supplies both in India and globally, and limited finances with State governments which have now been given the responsibility of vaccinating the bulk of the country’s population, this is not going to happen quickly enough to blunt either this or future waves.

Tested methods that work

  • So along with vaccination, it is important to practice the full methods that have been shown to slow the spread of COVID-19 in different parts of the world: mask wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene and a ban on mass gatherings.

  • They may not be as effective as mass vaccination, but in the absence of vaccines, they are perhaps the only way to reduce community transmission and slow the spread of the virus.

  • A study last year in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene found that countries where masks were widely used (either because of government orders or cultural norms) had lower per capita mortality from COVID than countries where there was no universal masking.

  • A smaller study of transmission among family members in Beijing households, found that face masks were 79% effective in preventing transmission when they were used by all household members.

  • A comprehensive review of the scientific evidence for the use of face masks, published in January this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concluded that “near-universal adoption of nonmedical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures” could reduce community spread, provided the measures were sustained.

  • Public health measures that work best are those that the public voluntarily adopts because they see it as being in their best interests.

Bangladesh shows the way

  • There is evidence from an experimental study in Bangladesh that people will use masks enthusiastically if they are provided free, are comfortable, and accompanied with appropriate instructional material.

  • A team of researchers, led by Mushfiq Mobarak of Yale University, carried out an experiment involving 350,000 adults in 600 villages in Bangladesh to try and understand how to increase mask usage.

  • They found that mask usage tripled when they were given away free and accompanied by well-designed instructional material, as well as reminders from religious and community leaders and volunteers.

  • Having volunteers in public spaces such as markets to remind people to wear masks and distribute masks to those who did not have them, as well as frequent messages from religious and community leaders saw an increase in mask usage from 13%, when none of these interventions existed, to over 40% with them.

  • One key to success was mask quality: masks needed to be comfortable to wear in hot and humid conditions, as well as being effective filters.

  • Importantly, those who wore masks were also more likely to maintain social distancing.

  • Over the last year, India has built significant capacity to manufacture masks, so supplies should not be an issue.

Reaching out the right way

  • Communication at the level of communities is the key to getting people to protect themselves this way.

  • People need to be explained the reasons for mask wearing as well as the right way to wear a mask.

  • Imaginative and creative communication campaigns are essential.

  • In Bangladesh, community-level leaders as well as religious leaders were used to reinforce mask wearing and social distancing messages.

  • Most Indian States have reasonable, well-functioning networks of health workers at the village and community levels that can be used in health campaigns.

  • These solutions may seem simplistic, but if the country is to reduce the impact of future waves, it is essential that they are put in place.

  • Viruses are the most basic of organisms. And often, basic changes in human behavior can drastically reduce the ability of a virus to transmit.

 

2) State repression that breaches public peace

Telangana’s recent ban on 16 organisations by invoking the Telangana Public Security Act is a smokescreen

GS 2: Important Aspects of Governance, Transparency and Accountability


Context:

  • The Government of Telangana, on March 30, 2021, issued a notification (G.O. Ms.73) banning 16 organisations under the Telangana Public Security Act, 1992 (TPSA), declaring them as ‘unlawful associations’ and ‘new front organisations of the proscribed Communist Party of India (Maoist)’, which was made public three weeks later on April 24, 2021.

Health crisis, faltering steps

  • On April 19, the High Court of Telangana described the State government’s affidavit in response to PILs urging for greater transparency in control, containment and care as ‘wishy washy’ and ‘disappointing’ and wondered whether the State was competing for the first place in the COVID-19 surge — and we might add, the failure in governance reflected therein.

  • Logically therefore, the attention of the government should be directed at managing the public health crisis and the distress caused to the people at large, demonstrating due diligence in fulfilling its constitutional obligations under Part IV of the Constitution.

Omnibus labelling

  • From workers’ collectives, to women’s groups, students’ groups, Adivasi collectives and civil liberties groups — list trawls in anyone who is likely to resist or protest on any count by merely dubbing organisations as a ‘front’ or ‘new front’, or as ‘urban guerillas’.

  • The reason for the proposed ban is the fact that these activists are ‘moving in urban area by adopting various guerilla tactics… to wage war against the state’.

  • Interestingly, the rationale is strengthened by the fact that they have ‘joined hands with several organisations and [are] alluring the members into their folds [sic] inciting inflammatory statements, meetings and rallies highlighting various issues against the State and Central Governments’.

  • The G.O. goes on to state that these organisations are organising protests in the ‘barren lands’ of Chhattisgarh besides demanding the release of G.N. Saibaba, Varavara Rao, Rona Wilson and other leaders of various front organisations who were arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case, and ‘repealing of UAPA Act, Farm Laws, CAA/NRC etc’.

  • This omnibus labeling of organisations and so-called crimes in themselves are ground for challenging the ban.

  • The Bhima Koregaon case is ongoing. Even the investigation is as yet indeterminate. Construing support for the Bhima Koregaon accused as a crime under the TPSA is a criminal mis-reading and deliberate mis-application of an already draconian law.

Challenging UAPA

  • The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, is widely challenged by everyone with a rudimentary understanding of the Constitution as being against every constitutional guarantee.

  • Pending repeal, it is our constitutional right to challenge its application in every case in which we believe its application is a travesty of the Constitution.

  • Protesting against the UAPA or seeking its repeal cannot in itself be construed as an unlawful activity, as this notification by the Telangana government seems to suggest.

  • This brings us to protests against the CAA and Farm Laws which the G.O. 73 expressly mentions. There has been widespread protest against the farm laws in the State as well as against the CAA.

  • While Telangana Chief Minister, K. Chandrashekar Rao, refused to take a definite stand on the Farm Laws in the legislative debates on this issue, his stand on the CAA is clear and unequivocal.

  • The Telangana Assembly passed a resolution against the CAA, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register on March 15, 2020, stating that the CAA violated the constitutional guarantees of equality, non-discrimination and secularism, and will ‘endanger the lives of vulnerable groups who do not possess adequate documentary proof of citizenship’ — and went on to state that, ‘there are serious questions as to the legality and constitutionality of the CAA, NPR and NRC’.

  • There is no indication that the State Legislature has reversed its stand on this question.

Issue of timing

  • The timing of this notification merits close scrutiny.

  • At a time when the government is facing the heat for mismanaging public health and safety, and therefore endangering public security, the response is to blow out a smokescreen invoking draconian legislation to declare the demand for governmental accountability as an unlawful activity that is evidence of participation in an unlawful association.

  • It is state repression that breaches public peace. Not the demand by citizens for state accountability.