A parish priest was arrested in Koodappuzha of Chalakkudy in Thrissur district on Monday morning after he conducted a mass at 6.15 am, which was attended by around 100 believers. About 50 people who attended the mass were also booked by the police for defying Kerala governmentâ€™s orders, restricting religious gatherings in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier on Sunday, the police registered a case against 50 people for conducting a wedding function in Vazhottukonam in Thiruvananthapuram. Four people, including the bride's father, were arrested and let out on bail. More than 100 people were present at the function, which was at the brideâ€™s house. On the same day, eight people were booked for organising a mass prayer at Juma Masjid Attakulangara in Thiruvananthapuram, in which 75 people participated.
All of this, despite there being restrictions in place to prevent the further spread of COVID-19. There have been several incidents in the last few weeks of people defying social distancing and rules that bar large gatherings in the state to prevent spread of COVID-19. Their actions not only put them at risk of contracting the infection but others also.
While these people are being called out for their irresponsibility, health experts said that it poses a huge challenge to the frontline health workers.
Lack of awareness
Some said that there is a lack of awareness and that the rules pertaining to public health are not stringent enough. Instead of seeing them as an enemy, state administration should educate them more about the pandemic, they said.
Dr Sulphi Noohu, Vice President of Indian Medical Association (IMA) Kerala Chapter, said that while these actions are distressing, they are more exception than the norm.
"They might be breaching the rules and guidelines because they are not aware about the regulations. They might not have done this intentionally to harm others. There is an urgent need to intensify the awareness drives," he said.
Need stricter public health laws
Apart from education, Dr Sulphi said that the public health laws need to be updated and made more stringent.
Most of the people who defied restrictive orders were booked under section 269 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 269, which is for â€śnegligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to lifeâ€ť stipulates that â€śwhoever unlawfully or negligently does any act which is, and which he knows or has reason to believe to be, likely to spread the infection of any disease dangerous to life, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to six months, or with fine, or with both.â€ť
However, this is a bailable offence. â€śWe have public health laws that are century-old. We need stronger and stricter ones," Dr Sulphi added.
However, an official at the Directorate of Health Services, Thiruvananthapuram, told TNM that such incidents, no matter how rare or well-intentioned, pose big challenges to the health officials.
One breach causes many challenges
"We know what happened in Pathanamthitta and Kasaragod. With just one person breaching the instructions, the pressure on health workers, district administration and police has mounted. Cooperation from the public makes our work easier," he said.
In Pathanamthitta, a family of three who had contracted coronavirus came back to Kerala from Italy. And instead of being in home quarantine for the stipulated 14 days, the family visited their relatives, few of whom subsequently tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. In Kasaragod, a man from Eriyal, who later tested positive, also visited many of his relatives and friends, attended many functions, including three weddings, and put many people at risk. Two MLAs also went into isolation after they had been in contact with the patient.
"These may be rare incidents but have the potential to put many lives in danger. We have seen such irresponsibility from people in every district. We are struggling to prevent community spread of the disease. We are extensively providing awareness. People have to realise the seriousness of the situation," he added.
A total of 95 people have tested positive in Kerala for COVID-19 so far. There are 64,320 people who are under observation in the state, out of which 63,937 are in home quarantine and rest in hospitals, as on March 23.