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‘Ignore at your peril’

Concerned citizens flag casual approach to COVID-appropriate behaviour at a time when Omicron is emerging to be a real threat

A shopping mall at Maddilapalem junction was teeming with shoppers on Christmas Day. The huge crowd in the vast space outside the mall and people jostling with one another at the entrance and those inside, visible through the huge glass entrance, made one wonder whether the pandemic threat was over.

Many of them were not wearing masks and some were wearing it on their chins. A vast majority of the crowd seemed to be well-educated and it is unlikely that they haven’t heard of the Omicron threat and its rapid spread. They, perhaps, think that Omicron is ‘harmless’ as even those who are getting it are rarely being hospitalised.

The shoppers formed a queue outside the mall, to get into it in a hurry as though the stocks would run out. The security guard at the entrance rightly pointed out: “This way, it is not long before the authorities concerned will impose another lockdown.” He was speaking out loudly to caution the crowd to ‘maintain a safe distance’, even as he checked their body temperature with the thermal gun and sprayed sanitiser on their palms.

Many people, including those who were witness to their friends and acquaintances succumbing to the virus during the first and second waves, seem to think that the virus has lost its virulence and there is no cause for worry.

The other day, barricades with warning signs were put up by authorities of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation (GVMC), preventing entry of people into the RK Beach, as overcrowding could result in spread of the virus. Visitors were seen without masks, making their way through the gaps between the poles to enter the beach.

“Passengers travelling in AC coaches are, more or less, complying with COVID-19 protocols, perhaps, in view of increased threat in closed coaches, which does not allow free movement of air,” says A. Sanni Babu of Visakhapatnam, who works in Secunderabad, and keeps travelling between the two cities frequently.

“While travelling in the Sleeper Class and by bus on earlier occasions, I found that about 20% of them were not wearing masks and 10% were wearing it below their jaw, which is as good as not wearing it. The staff manning the entry/exit gates at railway stations should be asked not to allow passengers without a mask. The bus conductors should be directed to insist on passengers wearing masks or collect double fare from them to deter them from violation of protocols,” he says.

Autorickshaw drivers, who were earlier wearing masks apart from arranging a thick transparent plastic sheet to act as a barrier between them and the passengers, have now done away with all such precautions. Commuters have also stopped worrying about travelling in crowded autos and many of them do not even bother to wear masks.

“People in general are more casual in wearing face masks and maintaining social distance in public gatherings. Around 90% of the time, people are disregarding the protocols. This is more true of the working class people. This may be due to the vagueness about the health impact of Omicron,” says B. Devi Prasad, a former professor of Social Work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences(TISS) in Mumbai and also a former professor in Andhra University.

“While going for work on my bike in the mornings, I see half of the people on the roads not wearing masks and some of those who do it, however, not wearing it right. Many of those who wear masks think that alone is enough to keep the virus at bay and do not hesitate to push their way through crowds at banks and public places,” says Daniel, a resident of Kancharapalem area.

Doctors underline the importance of following COVID-appropriate behaviour to check the spread of the virus. Though Omicron may not require hospitalisation, those affected by it can become super spreaders, they opine.

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