The 21-day lockdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not going to be just a fight against the coronavirus, but also superstition, rumours and an unscientific temperament among many Indians that is complicating the already uphill task.
Before Modi made the announcement, a series of measures were taken to spread awareness about social distancing, scientific understanding and the Janta curfew. But reports from far-flung parts of India — a country already divided by by differences in income, education and geography — emerged that the people were behaving in away that contradicted the essence of this messaging.
Amid calls by state governments and medical professionals for social distancing, many Indians indulged in behaviour that challenged the basic norms of public health. Soon after the news of the coronavirus, a right-wing group called Hindu Mahasabha organised a gaumutra (cow urine) party.
Hindu Mahasabha president Chakrapani Maharaj said that there would be gaumutra counters and incense sticks made of cow dung at the event to drive away the coronavirus. He also claimed the virus would not affect vegetarians and called on public figures eating meat to apologise to the virus.
Facebook pages were flooded with videos claiming the pandemic was nature’s revenge on mankind for eating non-vegetarian food. The Wuhan market in China, thought to be the epicentre of the disease, was the reason cited for this.
Instead of observing precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, some performed pujas. In Agra, prayers were offered to the Yamuna river, which according to Hindu mythology is the sister of Yama, the god of death. There were also reports of a puja where an effigy of the virus was “fed” halwa puri to satiate its hunger.
Some religious preachers, in clips circulating on social media, claimed God sent the coronavirus to punish and destroy their enemies.
Soon after the outbreak Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma appealed to Muslims not to congregate in mosques. Though this appeal was received well by many, others were hostile. In many parts of the state, Muslim men took part in processions claiming this appeal was a “threat” to Islam.
One of the most egregious examples came on the day of Modi’s Janta curfew. The people of India were supposed to observe a self-imposed curfew and express gratitude for health workers rising their lives by clapping and banging pots and pans. But in many parts of the nation, many took to the streets in large numbers to sing and dance, thus undoing all the benefits of the curfew.
The fight ahead isn’t just against a virus, but also a part of India itself.
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