KARALAPAKKAM, India: Harmahan Deka doesn't wear a mask anymore to avoid COVID-19 nor does he try to keep a safe distance from others.
For the 25 men and women he works with in his construction materials business near the small town of Baihata Chariali in India's Assam state, life is more or less as it used to be, Deka says.
"The virus can't attack me, it's weakened," the 50-year-old diabetic said. "I often hang out at a busy neighbourhood grocery store – without masks, nothing. Both the store owner and I are fine. Maybe we've had it already without symptoms."
In two dozen small towns and villages visited by Reuters reporters in recent weeks, people have largely given up on social distancing and masks after months of sticking to the rules, believing the virus is not such a serious threat.
The change in behaviour in rural India – where two-thirds of its 1.3 billion people live, often with only the most basic health facilities – has come as infections in the countryside have surged.
Health officials are exasperated.
"Sometimes people take it too lightly, as if nothing will happen to them just because they're breathing fresh air and eating fresh vegetables," said Rajni Kant, a member of a rapid response team of the state-run Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) set up to fight the pandemic.
"Health infrastructure is poor in rural areas, that's why they have to strictly follow social distancing norms, wear masks, avoid crowded areas and keep washing hands. Otherwise they'll suffer."
But for many villagers, it seems the reality has not hit home as they've not seen the virus kill anyone they know.
Deka in Assam, for example, said he'd not heard of any deaths or even infections. He said that made him confident that some sort of herd immunity had been reached.
But the numbers tell a different story.
More than 2.3 million people have been infected with coronavirus in India, the third highest number in the world after the United States and Brazil, and more than 46,000 have died.
Besides the impact on public health, the spread of the virus in the countryside could dash hopes for what the central bank projects will be a "robust" recovery of the rural economy, buoyed by good rains for summer crops.
"NOT GOING OUT"
In a sign of how the virus is infiltrating the countryside, the share of infections of the top three urban districts in seven states – among the worst affected in the country – fell from 60 per cent at the end of June to 45 per cent a month later, according to data analysed by Reuters.
"Our concern at the moment is that the disease, in moving into more rural areas that don't necessarily have the same strength in their health system, that we would see increased spread and potentially increased mortality," World Health Organization emergencies chief Mike Ryan said about India last week.
The federal government says masks are mandatory in public, but it can't enforce the order as health affairs are managed by state authorities. Some states have imposed fines for not wearing masks but still many people don't bother.
The ICMR's Kant said people in urban areas were better at sticking to the rules because they were generally "more educated and aware".
Sometimes there's a belief that isolation will protect villages, often combined with a fatalism among people long used to suffering.
"We're not going out and not letting anyone in to our village, that's why we don't wear masks," said Rohit Kumar, 22, who was holding a toddler in a crowded market Read More – Source