Just yesterday Bengaluru reported over 5,000 thousand COVID cases in a single day. For the past few months, the city continues to account for the most number of COVID cases in Karnataka. Bengaluru has crossed 2.5 lakh cases, with a particularly steep rise since June 2020.
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Bengaluru has done well in terms of testing, surveillance, containment measures, contact tracing, and scaling up health infrastructure. Hopefully, better regulation on the ground to enforce face masks and social distancing will help bring down numbers as time passes.
A false sense of normalcy adds to the problem
Since most places have opened up, people are assuming a false sense of normalcy and are therefore not following safety norms adequately, putting themselves and others at risk. Doctors and medical experts have repeatedly stressed about adhering to strict safety norms like masks, social distancing and hand hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID.
According to Dr Venkatesh, Head of Cardiology at Aster RV Hospital, “Unlock India is a step in the right direction for the economy. However, we are a long way from being free from the cruel clasp of COVID. An effective vaccine is a good year away. Bengaluru’s COVID cases are indeed spiralling. This has to be a wake-up call to the government and citizens alike.”
There’s extreme laxity in people’s behaviour on adopting preventive measures, which is extremely important along with other epidemiological measures, to bring down the rate of infection. This complacency must end now.
Educating the public and creating awareness
The government, while attempting to bring things back to normal, should invest in educating the public about the enormity of the situation. The emphasis on how just being masked can deter the spread of infection and save lives is a message that needs to reach every Bengalurean.
Elected representatives should hold frequent public programmes and educate people about what they are dealing with here. This, coupled with clear advisories from the BBMP, will be helpful.
WHO has recently acknowledged that COVID can be an airborne disease as well and that people should take extra care and precaution while outdoors, although the risk compared to indoors is much less. Washing, sanitising, masking and physical distancing should be on top of people’s minds.
Dr Venkatesh says: “We have lost 400 doctors in India to this pandemic. However, a majority of doctors (about four lakh in total) have survived this terrible onslaught despite being on the front line purely with the help of masks and face shields. This points out the importance of masks. If we can be safe, the rest of the community can be safe and it’s the duty of the government to keep on evangelising the power of masks and social distancing through campaigns, programs, media, etc. Many people think that they should remove their masks when they talk to each other or while on the phone. This should be strictly avoided. People should simply walk away from conversations with non-mask wearers. They will get the message.”
Can fines play a role in containing COVID?
Jayna Kothari, a senior advocate, says: “The observation of the Hon’ble High Court on non-compliance of government orders on wearing masks, is a welcome move. The state government had passed orders for compulsory wearing of masks and to maintain social distancing under the Karnataka Epidemic Disease Ordinance 2020 and imposed fines of Rs 100 and Rs 200.”
With increased citizen pressure and petitions, both GoK and BBMP have been responding positively until now.
According to a report last week, Medical Education Minister K Sudhakar said that those found violating the order on compulsory wearing of masks in public places will be slapped with a fine of Rs 1000 in urban areas like Bengaluru. But today, an order issued by Chief Minister BS Yediyurappa states that fines have been revised to Rs 250 from the earlier Rs 1000 for urban areas due to public outrge.
The BBMP also plans to add more marshals to monitor mask rules. Marshals have been given devices to take pictures of violators, issue fine receipts, and check repeated offences.
“Increasing the fine to Rs 1000 is a welcome move. Once a person has to pay such a huge fine, there will be strict compliance with these orders,” says Jayna.
“Under Section 188 of the IPC, if anyone disobeys a government order and if such disobedience causes or tends to cause danger to human life, health or safety, such person may be punished with a fine which may extend to one thousand rupees,” Jayna adds. Also, under section 269 and 270 of the IPC, if any person negligently or intentionally does any act which is likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, he/she shall be punished with a fine.
Additionally, in Karnataka, non-compliance with orders made under the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases Ordinance, 2020, will lead up to three years’ imprisonment or a Rs 50,000 fine.
People need to be aware of the laws and penalties before they try to defy them. Now more than ever, we need stricter action against people flouting safety norms, coupled with awareness initiatives by BBMP and elected representatives.
Our advocacy group Public Health Action Team (PACT) had earlier submitted a petition to BBMP through Jhatkaa.org for better regulation and awareness around mask-wearing and physical distancing. PACT is a Public Health Action Advisory group set up by Multiversal Advisory, Elephant Ear Advisors, Urban Venture Labs, NanoBI and passionate citizens of Bengaluru.
We are now working closely with the BBMP on the following points, to make Bengaluru safe by strict enforcement of the Karnataka Epidemic Diseases Ordinance 2020:
- Timely appointment of adequate number of BBMP marshals to monitor COVID rules in public spaces
With COVID numbers increasing by the day, we need at least two to three marshals per ward to regulate irresponsible behaviour.
The BBMP marshals were brought in to penalise non-mask wearers, people who were found talking in public with masks down and people who don’t practice 6-feet social distancing in public. This system was working really well.
BBMP Chief Marshal Col (Retd) Rajbir Singh says 55 marshals are being added to the existing 198 for mask and mobile operation while 109 machines have been given to police for fining.
Marshalls’ work should help avoid a surge in cases and PACT will continue to push this with BBMP. We also urge BBMP to create a roster of citizen volunteers, give them badges or cards which would provide them the authority to politely urge offenders in their respective areas to “MASK UP”.
There have been many cases of defiance and attacks by citizens on marshalls. BBMP must empower marshals to help execute the fines seamlessly. While May, June and July saw increased penalties and regulation, this had dipped in August and September. According to a report in the Times of India, close to Rs 4 lakh was collected as fines in August for flouting social distancing norms, but this fell to Rs 1.7 lakh in September. Fines from non-mask wearers are down to Rs 3 lakh, from Rs 6 lakh in August. The reason was that BBMP had to move most of its marshals to attend SWM/garbage disposal discrepancies under the advice of GoK.
This kind of discontinuity must be avoided at any cost. BBMP must get into quick and sustained action mode around the marshalling exercise for the next few months.
- To close down public places and institutions which do not have an impact on the economy until a vaccine comes our way
Unlock India initiative is about economic revival. It’s important to keep places of economic relevance open and to shut down the others. This would include public spaces such as parks, religious places, etc. When people are not civic-minded and lack the basic sensitivity that their actions could affect others in the vicinity, why give them an opportunity to interact and flout social distancing rules?
- To issue clear advisories and put up signboards across the city emphasizing the need to wear masks, how to wear them, what are the penalties for violating home quarantine, and consequences of not wearing masks and ignoring physical distancing
With no detailed advisory or announcements about the gravity of the COVID situation, precautions to be taken or imminent penalties, the city is an unregulated mess in this unlocked environment.
The BBMP and GoK should come out with a clear and detailed advisory for starters. Public places such as parks, restaurants, malls, religious institutions should compulsorily have signboards around mask wearing, social distancing and penalties. The elected representatives of the city should be roped in to spread the message.
- Setting up a helpline number to be managed by BBMP Chief Marshal
This helpline is needed for reporting gatherings that violate mandated norms. This should be managed by the Chief Marshall appointed by the BBMP. This will also help people report discrepancies at establishments or other public places. The helpline will depute the marshalls to do spot checks and penalise violators. In turn, the marshalls will feed the data on spot checks and fines collected (with violator names and numbers) back to the helpline. The helpline will accurately report numbers and will help BBMP create periodical visibility around the number and quantum of penalties via social media, press, etc. This could force change in people’s behaviour.
The current BBMP Citizen Complaint WhatsApp number +91 94806 85700 should become a full-fledged helpline managed by the BBMP marshall team.
BBMP cannot do this alone. It’s important that citizens support their effort. Let’s do our part, shall we?
[The author would like to thank Dr. Nimisha Agarwal, Senior campaigner, Jhatkaa.org for her inputs and for initiating the petition.]