PRAGUE — Such a little thing, such a little thing, but the difference it made was grave. As so often happens, a line from Morrissey sums it up best.
Back in my native Britain, that "little thing" of having to wear a face mask in shops has been met by no shortage of fear and loathing. Here in the Czech Republic, where I've lived for nearly a year, face mask requirements were adopted back on March 19 with almost no public debate and little dissent. Since then, with the country largely spared of the worst effects of COVID-19, face masks are no longer compulsory and have largely vanished from our lives, receding into a past made more distant by the time warping effects of lockdown.
The Czech Republic had been one of the first countries in the world to make face masks mandatory, in all indoor and outdoor spaces, regardless of social distancing. This came at a time when the country had only recorded 765 cases. As the efficacy of masks finally becomes recognized around the world, there is an understandable feeling of vindication here.
Czech face mask rules were extremely strict, yet met with widespread public support, despite some inevitable private grumbling.This support was part of a "safety first" attitude that dominated from day one. Agreement here about how best to tackle the virus may have been facilitated by a society with fewer dividing lines in terms of class and politics than the UK, although differences between urban and rural areas remain pronounced. It could be argued that the homogenizing effects of 40 years of communist rule in the 20 century left their mark.
Meanwhile, the Czech government took a single-minded approach to stopping the spread, and it seems to have worked: the country has only recorded around 14,000 cases and 360 deaths. And despite the turmoil of those extraordinary weeks in March, the majority of people immediately took to the rules about face masks, obeying them strictly whatever their personal feelings.
Shoppers in the Chelsea area in London not wearing face masks — Photo: Alex Lentati/London News Pictures/ZUMA
Hard as it might be to believe, people really did wear masks outdoors, all the time, even with no one else around. From the day they were introduced, solitary joggers ran up and down the banks of the river Vltava, steam billowing from underneath their masks, making them look like admirably prudent pandemic-era Blackbeards. At the same time, most Czechs had quite a tolerant attitude toward the use of masks by others. I never saw anybody being berated in public for not wearing one.
This same practical attitude was also on display when face mask rules were lifted on July 1. Some in the UK imagine that if masks become mandatory people will never want to take them off again; that they will become a kind of ideological symbol or obsession. But here in Prague, the change was sudden. And I only realized that they were no longer mandatory on public transport after spending half a day baffled by the fact that nobody else was wearing one.
Many British people have an aversion to giving up personal liberties, even in the name of public good.
Meanwhile, reading the news and talking with friends and family back home, I am left to wonder why masks have provoked such strong feelings in Britain. What could explain these different national attitudes?
Many British people have an aversion to giving up personal liberties, even in the name of public good. Most Czechs, on the other hand, found it relatively easy to decide between these two priorities. A friend suggested that history might have played some role in this, remarking that "old Eastern Bloc countries are perhaps more used to being ‘in lockdown."" Amid the eternal war of principles raging in the UK, there was never much of a contest here.
It is also true that the British value the "little things' of social interaction more than Czechs (enter Morrissey again: "such a little thing, a fumbling politeness'). It seems like a stereotype, but Czechs who have been to the UK often recall small talk and idle chatter between strangers as a particularly surprising, and not necessarily positive, part of their British experience. There is a sense among Czechs that the British penchant for small talk is somehow disingenuous. Most Czechs treat strangers with respectful reserve. It should be remembered, in this context, that for over 40 years being asked by someone on the train about your university dissertation or your family background could be anything but idle chatter.
Perhaps the British backlash against masks is indeed the result of our deep desire to connect in even the most minimal way; to note, with a resigned air, how "the rain always starts on the first day of the summer holidays," or to complain about the price of train tickets ("scandalous, really"). This urge may be enough to make many of us Brits hostile to the notion of covering up even temporarily.
"How I love all the simple things of life." British dislike of mandatory face masks stems from some of our best attributes: openness to strangers and an emphasis on personal freedoms. But I believe the UK right now should learn from the practical attitude of my new Czech friends. Sacrificing some personal liberties will allow the UK to get back to normal more quickly. The vast majority will take their masks off with a sigh of relief the minute they are no longer needed. And so it should be.
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
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