Why Won’t Indians Wear the Damn Mask?

Social Commentary

Why Won’t Indians Wear the Damn Mask?

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

On just another fun day amid the raging pandemic, I am on my way home from the distant land of my apartment’s main gate. The watchman is not wearing a mask, and I ask him to do so for the sake of others. At my building, another watchman is not wearing a mask, and I ask him to do so for the sake of others. I enter the elevator, taking a deep breath from asking people for this most basic courtesy to stop the spread of an infection the size of the internet. Perhaps, it’s time to have the “covid talk”.

A floor below mine, the elevator stops, and in walks a neighbour, who is taking the elevator instead of the stairs to his other apartment one floor above. He is wearing an LV belt, a non-branded cap (for indoors), but no mask. I ask the maskhole (“Covid lingo for an asshole without a mask”) where his mask is, and he explodes with a “Don’t tell me what to do!”, assaulting my mask-protected face with 8 million droplets.

My neighbour is not alone in his disdain for good, responsible, citizenly behaviour. It’s a universal phenomenon, and you can see it reflected across the country in ignored “No Parking” signs, litter everywhere, and our unofficial national attitude of “Chalta Hai.”

We now extend this attitude toward Covid-19. But it is especially dangerous now, because we know masks are not just for us. They are to prevent the accidental spread of Covid-19 to someone else, by up to 99%. The Atlantic beautifully likens the virus to a city being on fire, ravaging everything – the embers are spread via sneezing, coughing, and talking. “These invisible sparks cause others to catch fire and in turn breathe out embers until we truly catch fire — and get sick. That’s when we call in the firefighters — our medical workers… If we could just keep our embers from being sent out every time we spoke or coughed, many fewer people would catch fire. Masks help us do that.”

Masks are also to prevent the accidental spread of Covid-19 to someone else, by up to 99%.

Why won’t Indians wear a mask? 

Despite the ability to nearly stop and put an end to the spread of Covid-19, people are choosing to take liberties with masks just the way early rappers did with low-waist jeans. This poses a recurring social problem for people who have read one decent Covid-19 article. If you check people, the kinder ones will put their mask back up their nose, after flashing their nostrils.

Then there are the clueless ones. I recently took up cycling again with a few school friends. We were taking advantage of the comparatively empty streets; besides, there is an inherent social-distancing aspect to cycling. However, as the group has expanded, my will to participate in it has shrunk. I have no intention of tolerating a stupid response that comes from politely asking strangers to keep their masks on. Can anyone be blamed for not wanting to catch something from your “it’s uncomfortable as fuck bro, I’m sweating under this shit”?

To my mind, the argument is as simple as – dressing for the environment and circumstances you are going to encounter. A dress or a suit to a ballroom. Suitable shoes to the gym and for a hike. A mask because you don’t want other people to possibly pay Biocon 32,000 rupees for something that they may have caught from your asymptomatic face.

As Indians, we are used to getting our way. We live in a state of constant pampering in comparison to people in other parts of the world. One of my most amusing conversations with a classmate in Dublin, was when I was telling her how in the West, the dishwasher is typically a machine, while in India, it’s typically a hired person. There is an inherent sense of entitlement many Indians of a certain caste and class have. While governments struggle to enforce rules, citizens themselves want convenience for themselves, even at the cost of a lack of greater good.

Wearing a mask is a question of what we owe to each other as human beings.

Why you should have the “Covid-19 talk” with friends and family

As we “unlock” our cities and neighbourhoods, a “covid talk” is quickly becoming a new norm to ease the tensions that come with people universally being social animals. It is to understand each other’s boundaries, and also to make one’s own boundaries clear. As this article in The Cut points out “It’s the viral equivalent of discussing consent before sex, with the hope that by establishing firm boundaries ahead of time, friends will be less likely to swaddle you in a hug or let their mask become a chin strap. This kind of conversation has become necessary, if not lifesaving, at a time when the virus is still raging and isolation has frayed everyone’s mental health. But it can also be uncomfortable at first and, depending on your friends’ and family’s attitudes, yield mixed results.”

Wearing a mask is a question of what we owe to each other as human beings. Sometimes being nice doesn’t work, and it’s odd to try and understand why someone would choose for you to be unsafe, let alone feel unsafe. It requires a combination of empathy, curiosity, patience, and persuasion skills, a cocktail that is out of the reach of most of us when we see someone’s nostrils while sweating ourselves behind a mask.

Yet, we must live in peace with people, especially our friends, family, and neighbours. And to carry on doing that while being alive and uninfected, we may have to think out of the box. Carrying a sign or wearing a t-shirt that reads “Your Open Face Could Cause Covid-19” is a good starting point. Other ideas include a fine for maskless people who have to post their credit card details on a common WhatsApp group to crowdfund the treatment of people in their neighbourhood. If you don’t have any other ideas, make a viral video out of them. Remember when that was a fun phrase?