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Editorial: COVID-19 - The disciplinarian that takes no prisoners
The lockdown which has been extended until May 31 across the entire state, barring in a few districts in Tamil Nadu, has thrown into sharp relief, the failure of citizens to follow social distancing norms, and in some cases, their complete disregard for the law and civic sense, like in the case of the super spreader Koyambedu market.
What makes the apathy striking is that the violations are taking place even while casualties are mounting among those on the frontlines – doctors, healthcare and sanitation staffers, policemen, and such workers who are risking life and limb to tackle the coronavirus crisis.
While the violators may be the exception to the case, it is regrettable that it took a pandemic like COVID-19 to introduce a significant portion of the Indian populace to simple ideas centred around the civic sense. Jostling with each other, at both liquor stores and enquiry counters at railway stations; crowding the aisles and opening the overhead luggage compartments even while the airplane is taxiing, relieving oneself by the highway or even blowing one’s nose with bare hands – we had turned a blind eye to everything – and in the bargain, sacrificed our right to civility – both of the tangible and intangible kind.
The pandemic offers the country an opportunity to right many wrongs – starting with the instilling of civic sense and accountability in its citizens and bringing about a paradigm shift in our attitudes towards personal and public hygiene. India might have to toughen its stance, gaze eastwards and borrow a leaf from Singapore’s rule book. The country is known for imposing astronomic penalties – from $2,000 to $10,000, on those found violating rules under the Environmental Public Health Act. More recently, in its bid to deter people from littering on the streets, Singapore’s National Environment Agency introduced brightly coloured vests that offenders must wear, after being served Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) and made to clean the streets.
The closest provision that India has under the IPC, 1860 that makes littering a crime is Section 279, which entails a punishment of a maximum fine of Rs 500 for ‘making atmosphere noxious to health.’ In a welcome move, the Personnel Ministry, as part of the national directives for managing the pandemic, recently said spitting at the workplace will be deemed punishable and shall entail a penalty. For a nation that has subsisted for a significant chunk of its independent life by banking on theories of Jugaad (improvisation) and Chalta Hai (anything goes), the coronavirus has come as a wake-up call from a disciplinarian who takes no prisoners. It requires the country to consider a thorough overhaul – beginning from the polity to the policy – encompassing every aspect of public life in between personal and public spaces – from offices to transportation modes to recreation, socialising and more. As living with the virus becomes the new norm of our lives, the cost of violation and indifference will be nothing short of lethal.