Health officials in India have reported an increasing number of people refusing to wear masks, despite rising case numbers fueled by the Omicron variant, with rule breakers’ excuses including seeing masks as a sign of weakness or as simply unhelpful in preventing infection.
“When you hear people offer explanations like that, you want to bang your head against a wall,” said Manish Chakraborty, a health official in the state of West Bengal who is part of a team of officers who impose fines on people for skirting Covid rules.
After the deadly wave of Covid caused by the Delta variant in India last year began to recede, mask wearing also declined. Crowded markets and tourist destinations again filled with people, mostly unmasked and not social distancing. Researchers say mask wearing in public in the country has fallen to the levels last seen in March.
As coronavirus cases started increasing in urban centers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told residents to be vigilant, and the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, imposed a curfew, among other measures. But with the opening of election season a month off, both leaders have been seen campaigning in states that are going to the polls, holding rallies that packed in thousands of people, lots of them without masks.
After many Indians took to social media to express their outrage at the apparent double standard, India’s top election body stepped in and banned public campaign rallies until Saturday.
On Monday, the defense minister, Rajnath Singh, announced that he had tested positive for Covid. Mr. Singh, 70, who said on Twitter that he had mild symptoms and was quarantining at home, had addressed a rally in the northern state of Uttarakhand on Thursday.
Over the weekend, a lawyer who was traveling at night by car in eastern Delhi fired five shots from his pistol after a dispute with police officers who had stopped him because he was violating curfew. The officers also asked the lawyer why he was not wearing a mask, as he was not alone in the car.
No one was hurt in the episode, but the police said that they had opened an investigation.
Last week, the police in the western state of Gujarat arrested three men after they were caught violating Covid restrictions while hosting a birthday party for their pet dog.
Siddesh Valvaikar, a volunteer who spent time between Christmas and New Year handing out masks to people on tourist-filled beaches in Goa, said that he often got a cold stare in return.
“When we gave them masks, people just threw them away,” he said.
The Indian Health Ministry reported 179,723 new Covid cases on Monday, the highest number since May, and identified approximately 410 new cases of the Omicron variant. But epidemiologists warn that those numbers most likely exceed what has been reported since most of those infected are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms and did not get tested.