The recent images of crowds in public places without social distancing or masks sent alarm bells through the medical establishment, not only here but also across the world. There could be multiple reasons for this complete abdication of Covid-19-appropriate behaviour (CAB), the most likely being complacency due to declining Covid-19 cases in the preceding four months in the country, and the launch of the vaccination programme. While doctors and epidemiologists continued to urge caution and preventive measures against a possible second wave and mutant strains of the virus, other priorities appear to have triumphed over social concern.
The pandemic has brought home the significance of public health measures and individual responsibility as essential aspects of healthcare in communities. The preventive aspect in control of infectious diseases is central to overcoming epidemics, far outweighing screening and curative measures. The World Health Organisation in its ‘Advice for the Public’ entreats individuals to “protect yourself and others from Covid-19”, describing measures to stay safe and prevent spread of the disease. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has published ‘An illustrative guide on Covid Appropriate Behaviour’ that is widely disseminated. While health authorities at the state and district levels initiate some preventive measures, the battle against the virus will be fought and won in communities, when individuals voluntarily adopt and promote CAB. It is a personal and civic duty we owe to others whom we live with, in the society that sustains us.
Doctors struggling with increasing patient loads have consistently advised preventive measures but the response has been lukewarm. It could be due to the mixed or conflicting messaging on social media, painful experiences during the first wave, or loss of trust. Enforcement of public behaviour through penalties and coercion can have only a limited effect. For any significant impact, there needs to be an alignment of personal and community intention to overcome this health challenge. Social distancing, correct wearing of masks, and hand-sanitising are simple ways we can take charge and contribute to the common good.
We are called to think beyond our individual or personal discomforts and care for others who may be suffering due to our indifference. Article 13 of the UNESCO Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights highlights the principles of Solidarity and Cooperation in this context. Solidarity emphasizes the social nature and interdependence of human beings, even amidst existing inequalities. Derived from Church teaching and earlier used in the 19th century labour movement, it developed into a principle of social policy in Europe. It calls for empathy and recognition of others’ needs and the willingness to give oneself for the good of one’s neighbour, beyond any individual or particular interest. During the pandemic, we can be sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable and those who serve us even as we shelter in place; health workers, the elderly, essential service providers, delivery boys, migrants, and daily wage earners who bear the brunt of infection and deprivation on the frontlines. Covid-19 appropriate behaviour is one way we can express our solidarity with others and reduce the disease burden.
While we cherish freedom of expression, this is hardly the time for tirades against masks and social disruption, when something as simple as CAB can save lives and protect the most vulnerable among us. Similarly, despite gaps in information on safety and efficacy of vaccines, we are extremely fortunate to have vaccines available at our doorstep. Individuals have a moral responsibility to get vaccinated not only for personal protection, but also because it contributes to the development of herd (community) immunity. As Covid-19 vaccination is voluntary, individual decision and behaviour has the potential to positively impact the common good.
In Africa, there is a beautiful expression of this philosophy of shared destiny in the concept of Ubuntu. It acknowledges interconnected needs and relationships within a community encapsulated in ‘I am because we are’ as a different way to think about personal identity. Providing a counterpoint to rampant individualism, it invokes a simultaneous self-humility and community-centric ethos.
With the deprivations and disruptions that have followed in its wake, this pandemic is surely the time for urgent introspection and recalibration. Our very survival will depend on the actions of others, and our own. It is certainly within our capacity to express solidarity with the wider community through Covid-19 appropriate behaviour that supports public health interventions during this challenging time
(The writer is a doctor and author of ‘Biomedical Ethics’)