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Rules of Engagement

Even as corona cases go up, strict guidelines have been issued for the gradual easing of restrictions in offices and industries. But will Indians let go their old habits of spitting and social proximity? By Papia Samajdar

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As is the case with any new disease, it takes time for authorities to issue tips and guidelines to the general public. This was the case with the novel coronavirus too. At the onset, the WHO, heads of government and scientists were sceptical about measures that are now mandatory. Even when the WHO issued recommendations for droplet and contact protection for carriers, world leaders paid little heed. Many questions were raised about the efficacy of wearing masks too. As the cases piled up, social distancing and masks in public places were mandated.

Since March 24, 2020, India implemented one of the strictest lockdowns to curb the disease. As it prepares to open up parts of the country on May 3, the home ministry has issued a list of guidelines to be followed.

The guidelines vest state governments with decision-making powers and the implementing authority has to en­sure that safety is maintained. In an effort to re-start the economy, the centre has provided some relaxation to certain sectors. However, states, Union Terri­tories and district administrations are required to ensure that the guidelines for social distancing in offices, wearing masks, etc, remain in place. Any dilution of these norms will not be allowed.          

Though travel restrictions continue, a small exception has been made for migrant labour. While interstate movement is not allowed except for medical and essential services, migrant workers can move within the state to other districts for employment. But all civilian domestic and international travel by air, trains, metro rail, buses, taxis, autos and cycle rickshaws remains suspended till May 3, except for medical and security purposes.

Industries which are exempted in­clude agriculture and animal husbandry, pharmaceutical and medical services and some construction activities. Factories operating outside the municipal limits, Special Economic Zones, export-oriented units, industrial estates and industrial townships are also allowed, provided they arrange for the transport and stay of their workers within the premises and have standard operating procedures to ensure social distancing at the site. Other industries include food processing units outside city municipality limits, manufacturing of IT hardware, mining, manufacturing of packaging units, oil and gas refinery and brick kilns in rural areas. Apart from that, government offices and NGOs providing care are exempted from the lockdown post-April 20. 

The guidelines have also laid down rules to be maintained in offices and workspaces. These include wearing a face cover while in public, social distancing and no official gathering with more than five persons at any time. There is strict prohibition of gutka, to­bacco and spitting in public spaces and those violating will be fined. All organisations are also mandated to sanitise the office periodically, ensure staggered lunch times and have good hygiene practices. The district magistrate is responsible for strict implementation of these rules. Failure to follow them will invite a penalty, as per the ministry guidelines.

Some of these measures may be difficult to implement in India. For example, 70 million Indians are estimated to chew tobacco, gutka and pan masala. This is a matter of concern in corona times as their spit can carry the virus. Prohibiting its sale is one way to control this chronic habit of some Indians. If found spitting, one is liable for a fine and a jail term of a year under the Disaster Management Act.

Punya Srivastava, joint secretary in the home ministry, admitted in a press address that spitting was a dangerous habit as the virus spreads through drop­lets. “We need to impose the strictest punishment,” she said.

This is probably the first time that the government and municipalities will enforce rules against spitting with such vigil. Most municipal laws prohibit spitting and have a fine attached to it. Though there have been anti-spitting drives in Mumbai, weak enforcement of rules has allowed this habit to thrive.

Bihar, Jharkhand, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra, Haryana, Nagaland and Assam had already banned the use of smokeless tobacco products and spitting in public. Kerala and Maharashtra impose a fine of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000, respectively, on anyone caught spitting. In Mumbai, spitting can cost one either Rs 1,000 or detention under IPC Section 189. The BMC collected more than Rs 1 lakh within 24 hours of announcing the fine on March 18. ICMR has also appealed to the public against chewing tobacco pro­ducts and spitting in public.

Dr Ritu Bansal, a Delhi-based dentist, told India Legal: “To test for corona virus, a mouth swab is taken. This means the virus is present in the mouth of those with the disease. Hence, spitting should be avoided at all costs.”

Sadly, spitting has also become an act of defiance in some cases and doctors and medical staff have become victims of it. In Tiruchirappalli, a Covid-19 positive patient was booked for attempt to murder after he allegedly spat on a doctor treating him. TV visuals have also shown suspected patients spitting on police personnel from a bus ferrying them to hospitals for treatment. They were booked under Sections 269, 270 and 271 of the Indian Penal Code, which stipulates punishment for unlawfully committing an act to spread diseases dangerous to life and violating quarantine rules.

As the second lockdown gets relaxed, the number of Covid-19 cases and death toll due to it continue to rise. States are also divided between imposing a strict lockdown or giving some leeway. Maha­rashtra, which tops the number of cases, has relaxed the lockdown only for industries in the green and orange zo­nes. How­­­ever, all districts continue to be sealed with only essential services permitted. Similarly, Delhi’s 11 districts have 108 containment zones. Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal ann­ounced that any de­cision regarding the easing of restrictions will be taken only after carefully assessing the situation as cases continue to rise. However, it has allowed standalone and neighbourhood shops and single units to open.

Kerala, which claims to have flattened the curve, has decided to reopen restaurants and allow private vehicles to ply on an odd and even basis. Haryana has also decided to allow industrial ac­tivities after owners of industrial units are granted permission through its SARAL portal, provided they are not under the containment areas.

In Goa, which currently has no active cases, the government has allowed fisheries cooperative societies and associations to start selling fish. This is coupled with implementation of strict social distancing guidelines and certain rider restrictions.

While states and the centre have issued strict guidelines, implementing agencies continue to face difficulty in ensuring total compliance. According to the data published by Delhi Police, 66,000 FIRs had been registered by April 4 against people flouting the lockdown norms. Similarly, people in Ass­am, Goa and Delhi came out on April 20 despite only a partial lift of the lockdown and cases were registered against many.

Social distancing is a relatively new concept in India and many people find it difficult to practise it always, leading to violations. Not only does this water down the government’s efforts but it could sound the death knell for many.

Lead Picture: UNI

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