Amid Covid-19 fatigue, India rolls out new awareness campaign

Health officials taking a swab sample from a woman in Kolkata on Oct 13, 2020.
Health officials taking a swab sample from a woman in Kolkata on Oct 13, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - The Indian government has rolled out a new campaign to remind people not to let their guard down, as experts warn that fatigue over the pandemic, coupled with the coming festive season and winter, could result in a spike in cases of Covid-19.

The new initiative is called a Jan Andolan (People Movement) campaign for Covid-19-appropriate behaviour. It includes putting up posters asking people to wear masks and follow other safety precautions in crowded areas like railway stations and markets, printing Covid-19 safety instructions on utility bills, getting celebrities to tweet safe practices and raising awareness through frontline health workers.

In a reminder to his 41.6 million fans on Twitter, Bollywood actor Salman Khan tweeted "only do three things", urging them to keep a 2m distance from others, wear a mask and sanitise their hands.

Launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, the campaign comes as India counts down to the festive season - including Dussehra on Oct 25 and Deepavali celebrations from Nov 13 to 15 - and records dipping temperatures in the north, both of which threaten the current downward trend in Covid-19 cases.

India, with almost 7.2 million cases of the coronavirus, has the second-highest number of infections after the United States, which has more than eight million cases.

India had one of the most stringent lockdowns in the world, shutting down all economic activity when there were a few hundred Covid-19 cases in March.

As restrictions loosened, the number of infections rose till they nearly hit a million new cases a day in mid-September.

Over the past two weeks, however, there has been a downward trend, with 55,342 new cases recorded on Monday (Oct 12).

Still, authorities are gearing up for the festival season, when large gatherings are the norm.

A new study by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has warned that the capital city Delhi, for instance, needs to be prepared for 15,000 fresh cases of Covid-19 every day due to respiratory problems triggered by winter pollution, and festive gatherings.

At present, daily rise in cases in the capital is fewer than 2,000, with 1,849 fresh cases on Monday.

In Sadhapur, a village in north-east Delhi, community health worker Vijaya Lakshmi, 42, has been repeatedly telling people to follow safe practices.

"There are some people who understand and we don't need to tell them anything. But then there are others we have to tell them one or two times to wear a mask, not to go to a crowded place and to wash hands. People don't use sanitisers, so it is mainly washing with hands," said Ms Lakshmi.

She added that many people repeatedly asked her when the pandemic would end. "I tell them no vaccine is available yet. They are just tired of wearing the mask."

A survey of 18 cities by non-profit organisation EkDesh and research company Crownit in September found that only 44 per cent of Indians were wearing a mask even though awareness levels about masks were at a high of 90 per cent. Fifty per cent did not wear masks because they had breathing trouble, while the rest said they did not wear a mask because they maintained social distancing.

Health experts said that the awareness campaign would need to be tailor-made for different areas from urban to rural.

"The campaign faces the triple challenge of festivals, fatigue and fatalism. Its focus is seemingly on simple and easily understandable messages that will be disseminated through all media platforms, said Professor Rajib Dasgupta, chairperson of the centre for social medicine and community health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Without a more targeted approach that caters to different groups, the campaign "will have limited powers in translating to a jan andolan," he said.

There is a need for "substantial investment in social science research on risk perceptions, particularly of the vulnerable groups, and being able to tailor risk communication and community engagement strategies based on nuanced understanding".