In rural UP, government messaging on COVID absent; rumour and superstition thrive

28 March 2020
On 19 March, in an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to beat utensils to thank healthcare workers for their efforts against COVID-19. As soon as his address ended, rural Uttar Pradesh was beset by rumours. People understood this suggestion as a ritual to ward off coronavirus.
David Talukdar/NurPhoto/Getty Images
On 19 March, in an address to the nation, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged citizens to beat utensils to thank healthcare workers for their efforts against COVID-19. As soon as his address ended, rural Uttar Pradesh was beset by rumours. People understood this suggestion as a ritual to ward off coronavirus.
David Talukdar/NurPhoto/Getty Images

By the time truth is able to tie its shoelaces, untruths have run marathons—such is rural Uttar Pradesh’s situation in preparation for the deadly COVID-19. When he delivered an address to the nation on 19 March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had called for a “Janata Curfew,” or a people’s curfew, three days later. He urged India’s citizens to gather in their balconies and to beat pots and pans or sound a conch shell, to thank healthcare workers that are at the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. As soon as the prime minister’s address ended, rumours began to spread in rural Uttar Pradesh. People understood the clapping and thumping to be religious practices, while others ascribed differing purposes to the curfew Modi had imposed. “There is no awareness campaign of the UP government in this,” Bual Yadav, who lives in Johinarendra village of Kushinagar district, said. “People are still negligent. Very few people are washing their hands with soap regularly or wearing masks.”

Priyanka Rajbhar is a research student at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi, Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency. She married last year, and is currently staying with her in-laws, in Ramgarhwa village. “My mother-in-law said that the whole village is lighting diyas outside their homes, as many diyas as there are men in the house.” Her mother-in-law told her that these diyas have to be placed at the threshold of their homes in the evening, after taking a bath, and that the family members have to make imprints of their feet with turmeric at the entrance. “All the older women beat thalis every evening to ward off coronavirus,” Rajbhar said.

Ankita Singh, a resident of Guretha village in Azamgarh district, said that confusion and rumours were spreading even before Modi announced the janata curfew, and were strengthened by it. The villagers had heard that “Modi ji would sprinkle medicines from airplanes, and therefore, no one should leave the house,” she said. People told each other to “do regular pooja at home every day, to light a lamp near the neem tree and give it two jugs of water.” In addition, Singh said, people were to put frankincense and camphor lamps at the entrance of their homes, and to write “Om Namah Shivaay”—a mantra that invokes the deity Shiv—with cow dung outside the house. “And every evening, the eldest woman of the house will thump a plate,” she added. In Jalaun district’s Itahiya village, too, it is being believed that Modi used the curfew to spray a medicinal cure for COVID-19, Atul Dixit, who resides there, said.

Sandeep Prajapati, a resident of Jallabad village in Shamli district, said that at 3 am on the morning of 22 March, he received a call from his sister. “Wake everyone up, the village has sunken in, and anyone who is sleeping will turn to stone,” she told him. The whole village was awakened in the resulting chaos. Prajapati said that every evening, the villagers light a lamp at their threshold of their homes. A similar rumour spread in Adalpura village, in Mirzapur district, Chandan Sahni, a priest in the village, said.

Sunil Kashyap is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: COVID-19 coronavirus Uttar Pradesh rural India
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