Mind your spit

Most citizens believe spitting is their birth right but it’s vile & the pandemic gives enough reason to end the habit forever

The one thing that makes most Indians feel like an indomitable achiever, though for a split second, is undoubtedly spitting. If one notices closely, one would see the distinctive changes in the face of a person before he or she spits out with vengeance. The taut facial muscles distorting the countenance, readying for the regurgitation, the flitting eyes looking for the perfect spot for the deed and the head tilted at an angle of 45 degrees for the balance before shooting out the saliva at the right tangent — all these in just a few seconds.
Spitting is a biological phenomenon and socially acceptable in India. At times, a power spit can be an expression of emotions like loathe, disgust and frustration. Some people think it is also a sign of virility. Be it an urge to spit out betel leaf juice or phlegm, Indians spit with élan and without shame, even in this time of the pandemic.
In Shillong, spitting is a problem and even in this time of the grave health crisis, there is no end to this habit. If a national competition in spitting is held, the citizens here can give a tough competition to their pan and tobacco-chewing brethren in northern states. Shillongites not only spit on the road, they spit everywhere — inside offices, on walls, into bins, in public toilets and in market places, to name a few. Pools of spit or stained walls are common in every locality. Sadly, some of those in the power corridor, the secretariat building, also spit publicly and without any regard to health hazards.
Saliva, which is spitted out, contains water, mucus, electrolytes and various enzymes. Besides, it also contains germs. In this time of COVID crisis when the virus is spreading through droplets, spitting in public places becomes a major health issue. It has been banned in many states and hefty penalty has been put in place for offenders.
In Shillong too, the municipal board has notified a ban on spitting and a penalty of Rs 500 for flouting it. But old habits are hard to give up. So spitting continues and in absence of a proper monitoring, citizens remain reluctant to the health threats.
Sunday Shillong encountered several citizens spitting on roads and asked them whether they are aware of the problems and the municipality notification. Some scurried away fearing they would be penalised while others admitted to the mistake and tried to explain their “condition”, albeit anonymously.
A middle-aged woman blushed when she was asked the reason for her spitting. “I know about the notification and I am terribly sorry for doing this. I usually do not spit but when I take khaini, I have to or else I feel uneasy. But I am aware of the health hazards,” she said, even before it was pointed out that the act is banned for now.
Another citizen, a youth in his late twenties, initially replied to the query with a shy smile but when pressed for a reply, he said he was feeling nauseous because of acidity and wanted to spit out the bile-like fluid in the mouth. “The problem gets worse when I smoke,” he added and reiterated that “I always look for a drain along the road before spitting and avoid roads”.
Spit is nothing short of an in-built bio-weapon, especially during the outbreak of a highly contagious disease, that we can use to terrorise people or pull a prank. There were several reports in the last two months about ‘spit-attacks’ in those parts of the world where spitting in general is considered an unsocial behaviour. In one incident, a woman in Illinois’s Mettawa was arrested for spitting in a man’s face and yelling that she was a COVID-19 infected person. Her reason for outburst, though beside the point, was interesting. She was upset because the man had removed his mask. So much for protocols.
In another incident, a police man in Virginia was caught on camera spitting on a protester. Sometimes, these spit-attacks would end in fatality, for instance, the death of a woman in the UK who was spat at by a stranger. She started showing symptoms within a few days and subsequently died.
A teenager, who was walking with her friend, both in masks, said she is “very carefully these days as Shillong roads are always full of spit or betel leaf juice”.
The responsible adults said they tell friends and family members to refrain from spitting and if it is unavoidable, to find a proper corner. “I hate when I see people spit out nonchalantly. As if the road belongs to them and nobody else exists. This is sick, definitely in this time of crisis, and the habit should be banned for good,” said one of them.
Spitting in this time can kill someone or lead to imprisonment and this is the reason why citizens need to be careful about where they spit. At the same time, the authorities should be vigilant in catching and penalising those who are flouting guidelines. With lax monitoring, some citizens have taken the responsibility to make others equally aware of the problems related to spitting.
A woman in her mid-twenties, who identified herself as Estherla, said she often screams at spitters if they are young men and tries to explain the hazards if the person is an elderly. “I do my bit as a citizen and I have been doing this even before the corona virus outbreak. It is disgusting,” she cringed her face, probably at the mental image of an enthusiastic spitter.
Zitamary Kurkalang, a former teacher who runs a small shop at Don Bosco Square, makes sure that none who comes to buy cigarettes and kwai dirties the place. A white paper pasted on a square cardboard, hanging outside the shop, reads, “No smoking, no spitting, please keep distance of 1 metre,” in bullet points. The earlier board was hand-written, she informed.
“I have been telling people not to spit and smoke for years. I forbid people from spitting near the shop. It is a bad habit and I keep saying this,” said Kurkalang.
We live in a world of contradictions. So, as the debate over why and how of spitting goes on, a section of the population is in a fix over the ban on spitting. The ICC’s saliva ban has already become a subject of discussions in the cricket world. Likewise, baseball players in the US are worried over the ban on spitting during tournaments.
But that is just a small problem in this unending ocean of woes. Spitting is a vice and has a huge potential in spreading not only corona virus but germs of other diseases like tuberculosis, which is a common ailment in the state. Despite all these, many people remain habitual offenders and impulsive spitters.
According to clinical psychiatrist Dr Sonali Shinde Tesia, the persisting problem is due to people’s “refusal to change old habits and acknowledge the bad habit” and they find it easy to continue as before.
“New habits take understanding, time and patience to develop,” she pointed out.
As far as understanding goes, there seems to be little hope considering the blatant violation of the municipality direction. However, no one has been penalised so far. An official in the municipality board said though the guideline is in place, there is no manpower to vet citizens’ social behaviour but “we are planning to approach the police for help”.
The official was left speechless when he was informed that some government employees and public representatives spit into bins in their offices.
“In one of his essays, Bertrand Russell once said only government propaganda could change the biological habits of Asia. But at a time when the entire world is trying to grapple with the recent pandemic government propaganda alone may not be sufficient. Our Swachh Bharat campaign is facing a new challenge — spitting in public places fully knowing that the saliva droplets could spread very fast. The role of social organisations becomes important here to educate the masses about the hazards of this nasty habits,” said Parag Ranjan Dutta, a former professor.
When asked about this atrocious habit, Health Minister AL Hek said the problem is not too severe in Meghalaya. He also informed that a “no-spitting” directive was in place even before the pandemic and it is stricter now. “The government, through all deputy commissioners, has notified the guidelines and the citizens should adhere to them. Spitting especially is dangerous because there is a fear of the spread of the virus,” he added.
Will the stick be helpful in reforming citizens or should there be “incentives” to encourage more citizens to change the habit? Shinde is for incentives. “Usually some incentive, praise or reward may help the process of habit change. We can advertise or thank people to keep the town clean and not spit,” she said.
Whether a stick or a carrot, change can happen only if every individual agrees that spitting is vile and not one’s birth right. As a social responsibility, people who engage in moral policing, catching love birds from behind bushes, should divert their attention to spitters in public places. Also, it is necessary that the government ensures that its notifications are implemented at the grassroots level. Initially, it can, in fact, earn from the penalty amount. But before taking up the mammoth task of changing its citizens, the government must put its house in order to save itself from embarrassment.

~ NM

Illustration: Pinterest

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