Assam Health Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Himanta Biswa Sarma, while speaking to Lallantop Editor Saurabh Dwivedi on April 3, 2021, said that in the context of Assam, there is no COVID-19.
"There is no need to wear masks, what can I do? The Centre can give us instructions, but in the context of Assam, there is no COVID-19 these days," Sarma said in the interview.
When asked about masks, Sarma replied, "What is the need to create panic? When there will be (COVID-19 cases), I will inform the people to wear masks. Our aim is to revive the economy. If we wear masks, how will beauty parlours do business?" he asked.
"There is no Covid in Assam, there is no need to wear mask now in Assam...If there's a need I will inform people to wear the mask." - Assam's Health Minister & Forever CM-in waiting.— Saral Patel (@SaralPatel) April 3, 2021
Although Assam accounts for less than 1% of the total active cases in the country, the numbers are not negligible and hence, Sarma's remarks are misleading.
According to data released by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), Assam has 1,964 active COVID-19 cases, as on April 5, with an increase of 36 cases between April 3 and April 4 and 19 by April 5.
Sarma's comments come at a time when India is experiencing a second wave of COVID-19 cases and deaths. According to data from MoHFW, the country has recorded an average of nearly 30,000 daily active cases in the past 10 days. As on April 5, there are 7,41,830 active cases in India and 1,65,101 people have died of the disease.
"His comment is totally uncalled for at a time when cases are rising in the country,"Giridhar Babu, professor and head of Life Course Epidemiology, Public Health Foundation of India, told FactChecker.
Current COVID-19 figures in Assam
Assam has reported an average of 1,800 active cases in the past two weeks. However, the COVID-19 figures reported by Centre and the state government are different. While MoHFW recorded 1,964 active cases on April 5, 2021, Assam government's dashboard showed only 515 active cases the same day.
The cumulative number of confirmed cases in the state stands at 2,18,412, with 1,105 deaths as on April 5, 2021, according to data updated by the state. With an average of 22 COVID-19 positive cases reported daily, Assam ranks 24th among states for active cases.
"Even if a state has less COVID-19 cases it has no bearing in not following COVID-19 protocols. In fact, even when the cases are at the lowest, we should be following COVID-appropriate behaviour strictly because we don't want more cases," said Babu.
Is vaccine=no masks?
Experts have been reiterating that no vaccinated person can say that they will never be infected because the virus can still enter the nasal passages. The nasopharynx is the area from where the virus will stay and this is also from where the swabs are taken.
Even vaccinated people should wear masks to prevent the infection from spreading as they may be carriers. "Even if the entire population is vaccinated, the virus will still be lurking around and it is just a matter of finding it," Babu said.
Last year, New Zealand and Fiji lifted COVID -19 restrictions only when zero active COVID-19 cases were reported
"The notion of zero COVID strategy, which some countries are following, is a bubble. They can afford it. But Assam does not have that luxury to restrict everyone from entering the state. Hence, India cannot apply the same rules as other countries," added Babu.
Official actions differ
A day after Sarma's remarks, the state's health and family welfare department issued fresh notifications making negative RT-PCR tests mandatory for air and train passengers coming to the state from Mumbai and Bengaluru.
All air travellers from Mumbai and Bengaluru arriving at any airport in Assam need to carry a negative RT-PCR report of test conducted within 72 hours of arrival, with effect from 9th April: Assam Government— ANI (@ANI) April 4, 2021
In fact, on April 4, 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi exhorted people to wear masks and practice social and physical distancing to curb the spread of the virus. He said this in a high-level meeting held to review the COVID-19 pandemic situation and vaccination program in the country.