Swachh Bharat Mission can be a model for caution post the vaccine

Across Europe, even in Rome, there were poignant reports of subdued Christmas celebrations, unavoidable, because of the fear of the unpredictable coronavirus. Countries have fallen back on that age-old adage, discretion is the better part of valour. New Year’s Eve was not much different. In India, cities and states took recourse to a new set of restrictions that can’t be dismissed as killjoy. Leaders and governments are having to anxiously remind citizens about pandemic protocols. Among the few rescue acts of Joe Biden’s first day in the White House was the restoration of the mask.

In Mumbai, civic authorities have found that the number of people revelling at wedding receptions, pubs, restaurants and nightclubs exceeded the permissible limits — in fact, many were making merry without the mandatory mask. More than 10 lakh people were fined in the Maximum City for not using masks. Violations were also reported in other cities and towns. So, the announcement of a night curfew was an expected enforcement response.

Fines and police action are perhaps justified for protecting lives and preventing the system from collapsing. But making the wearing of masks a sustainable habit and observing physical distancing as part of everyday behaviour would have to be part of a shared — albeit none to cheerful — vision till there is a decisive green signal. It has to be like India’s Swachh Bharat, a sterling example of people’s participation. In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, “swachhata” was taken up as a “collective national responsibility”. As the vaccine entered the collective imagination of an expectant population, PM Modi reminded: “Dawai bhi, Kadaai Bhi ”. Though it’s currently constricted by avoidable vaccine hesitancy, India’s vaccine programme will hopefully usher in herd immunity at the earliest.

Behavioural changes require time. The observation of safe sanitation practices — especially those pertaining to toilet use, assiduously cultivated during the Swachh Bharat years of 2014-2019 — is a case in point. The key findings of the Fifth Round of the National Family Health Survey, 2019-20 do throw up certain concerns about the state of sanitation in the country, particularly in its rural parts. It would appear that the focus of the Swachh Bharat Mission on toilet access and use needs to be taken forward with double the vigour. Sustaining the changed behaviour requires a steady stream of campaigns, something that has always tested the implementers.

Very pertinently, the Swachh Bharat Mission Phase II gives institutionalised attention to the sustainability of ODF (Open Defecation Free) status, despite the action moving on to solid and liquid waste management. While Amitabh Bachchan called out for “Darwaza Bandh” — shut the door on open defecation — in the initial phase, the current call is for “Har Koi, Har Roz, Hamesha”. Trained swachhagrahis remain watchful across India’s six-and-a-half lakh villages to make sure that the guard is not down. The scale of mass action and buzz creation around sanitation under Swachh Bharat Mission was unprecedented.

For a country that prides itself on accomplishing the world’s largest behaviour change programme, involving 600 million citizens, sustaining a corona-responsive behaviour should be less challenging, given that the threat is much direct. In fact, to inculcate a new behaviour has always been relatively easier compared to changing an age-old habit like open defecation.

The hard work of the last 10 months of surveillance and testing, not to speak of enduring the painful lockdowns, and the fruitful precautions of masking, distancing and regular hand washing will come to a naught if the commencement of vaccination or the slide in the COVID case count are seen as an invitation to freedom. The year of vaccination, 2021, can only be compared with Phase II of the Swachh Bharat Mission. Much like the imperative sustain an ODF society, the behavioural changes necessitated by the pandemic must be preserved with double the effort even though the vaccine has opened up a vista of hope and the scale of infection is down — the latter owes in no small measure to the observance of the distancing and masking prescriptions.

While the network of election operations is seen as a model for vaccine distribution, the instruments and mechanisms of Swachh Bharat Mission can address the need for sustaining COVID-responsible behaviour — covering the face and maintaining physical distance. A volunteering force like the swachhagrahis or the band of young and skilled warriors like the zila Swachh Bharat preraks could be apt for the purpose.

Barely have the first jabs been administered in a handful of countries, a mutant variant of the virus has made its presence felt. The fear of a second or third surge of the pandemic lurks. Post vaccine, COVID-19 may moderate in terms of severity and infectivity, but it might not be completely eliminated some time soon. The learning from the pandemic is not only resilience but also humility in conduct and being aware that the virus remains an unpredictable adversary. The piece of cloth spread across the face that shuts off some of our sensory organs, besides being functionally efficient, is symbolic of this willing subjugation — that has to continue. The Clean India of Mahatma’s dream became possible when 130 crore Indians came together and adopted new habits of sanitation. The same joint resolve is necessary not to let a single mask drop off the nose.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 25, 2021 under the title ‘Swachh lessons for Covid times’. The writer, a former Director General (Special Projects), Swachh Bharat Mission, is presently a Visiting Professor at Central University of Odisha. Views are personal.

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