Mask Off

COVID-19 denial spreads to India

The protests in India seem to be inspired by similar ones in developed countries, such as this one in France. ewan bootman / nurphoto / getty images
Elections 2024
30 November, 2020

“I have never worn a mask,” Jagdish Chandra told me, in November. The 51-year-old businessman from Kolkata said that he had taken six flights since September and that he carries documents that supported his right to not wear a mask while travelling. “The security person may try to say, ‘I won’t scan you,’” he added. “But, more than following the rules, I need to protect myself.” Chandra, who claimed to have filed around twenty right-to-information requests regarding the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has taken part in several recent anti-mask protests in India, which he described as part of an awareness initiative.

“There is nothing like virus,” Ashok Patel told me, a month earlier. “How can something so small harm us?” The 65-year-old former sweet-monger from Rajkot said that he is unafraid of death. “I believe in a soul, not the body. It is the government whose health is failing.” Patel has performed a sort of satyagraha over the past fifteen years, courting arrest ten times for the goal of a “party-less India.” He was part of a group of 27 people who wrote to government authorities for permission to mingle with COVID-19 patients, without any protection, to show up what they see as a hoax. (They have not received a response to date.) As part of a nationwide protest on 1 November, he wanted to present the entire Bhagavad Gita on placards displayed on the bodies of protesters; when we spoke again in late November, he told me he had been detained by the police for around four hours that day.

In various towns and cities across the country on 1 November, an eclectic group of people—spanning various age groups, professions and hometowns, but most of them belonging to the upper and middle classes, and gathering in groups of a hundred or so—demonstrated against government restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic, including a directive on wearing masks in public. These followed on the heels of earlier demonstrations at Mumbai’s Marine Drive and Delhi’s Rajghat on 2 October, and an anti-mask video released on Independence Day. Under the banner of “Awaken India,” groups of protesters in Delhi, Mumbai, Rajkot, Ranchi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and parts of Uttarakhand and Haryana took to the streets to assert their freedom from state control, and have subsequently taken part in forums such as a public meeting held in Mumbai on 21 November. Patel said he was planning to march from Rajkot to Mumbai with eight others, all styled like MK Gandhi, in December.

What would it be like to have lived this last year as if nothing had changed? It is hard not to envy the certainty of India’s anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers and pandemic deniers, as we limp to the end of one of the most extraordinary years in recent history—even as we fear what they are possibly unleashing on the rest of us. COVID-19 deniers often inspire genuine fury, if not frenzied arguments.