In a verdant village in hilly Yercaud in Salem district and among some tribals living in Tamil Nadu, you can be ostracised for wearing a mask in Covid times. Though Tamil Nadu is in the grip of a second wave and there is a lot of awareness about the importance of wearing a mask as a form of protection against the pandemic, in this village it is a different story.
The residents of this Yercaud village located around Sanyasi Malai view visitors with a mask with suspicion fearing they may have been affected by COVID-19 and have even gone to the extent of lynching the person.
According to Jayaprakash, a social worker based in Yercaud there are nine panchayats overseeing 67 villages here. “The people in these villages do not wear masks in their villages because they think the virus is spreading only through outsiders like tourists and people from the plains,” he said.
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The community bonding is so strong in these villages that they cannot imagine they will contract the virus from their own kith and kin, he added.
“People in this village call each other brother, uncle, grandfather, etc. They do not wear a mask when they visit each other’s homes. It is just not encouraged or welcomed here,” said Jayaprakash, adding that the villagers may don a mask when they leave town.
This is however not an isolated case in Tamil Nadu. There are many more villages which shun masks. Tribals in the state do not wear masks as well because they do not believe in modern science and medicine, said Thanaraj, a tribal activist based in Coimbatore.
He said, “The tribals argue that they do not have any kind of relationship with the outsiders and they don’t fear the pandemic. And, when an outsider wears a mask in their village, they feel insulted.”
According to Thanaraj, the villagers felt that when there are no Covid cases in their village, the outsider wearing a mask conveys that the village has been affected by the pandemic. “They feel insulted and hostile to the outsider and make them remove their masks,” he added.
In fact, when Thanaraj recently visited a tribal village and distributed masks many politely refused. They told Thanaraj that they had one at home which was given to them a year ago.
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“This is the level of apathy in these villages towards protecting themselves against Covid. When we advise them to wear masks and maintain social distance, they turn around and tell us to be safe since we live in urban areas,” he pointed out.
Interestingly, the activists claimed that most tribal villages are not affected by the pandemic. V Vikaram Kumar, a Siddha practitioner based in Thirupathur district believed that it was because tribals lived amid natural surroundings and had high immunity levels.
“In general, the people who dwell in deep forests breathe fresh, unpolluted air and their food habits are high in nutrition. They naturally have strong immunity levels,” said Kumar. However, tribals in Jawadhu Hills and Yelagiri Hills which are located in the Eastern Ghats, depend on cities like Vellore, Ranipet and Thirupathur for work where they are mostly engaged as daily wage labourers.
“They are the ones who become susceptible to Covid,” he added.
Parvathy Soren, a social worker in Coimbatore district and a tribal herself, who lives in an Irula settlement near Pilloor Dam, said the tribals reject masks because they believed that their local deity will protect them.
To them, the coronavirus is a kind of disease like chicken pox and smallpox virus, she said. And, they believed that if they follow some rituals that satisfies Amman (a female local deity), they will be cured of the disease. They looked down upon outsiders who wore masks, said Soren.