Can you imagine being fined for spitting publicly in Bangladesh?
Sounds weird? But it is a de jure truth.
If you spit somewhere near the notice "Thutu fela nishedh" (Do not spit), it is possible that you will be punished monetarily as per the law of the land.
According to the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976, "Whoever, in any building or place occupied by the government or by any local authority, smokes or spits in contravention of a notice affixed to such building or place by the person in-charge of such building or place, shall be punishable with fine which may extend to Tk100."
Although the legal provision is there, its official enforcement is yet to be made popular.
However, it is high time that we drew attention to this public nuisance, as we are going through a pandemic.
Covid-19, a dreadful menace that has killed 1.3 million people by far globally, transmits primarily between people through infected secretions, such as saliva and respiratory secretions or droplets, which are expelled when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks or spits.
Therefore, it goes without saying that the seemingly harmless act of open sputter can be lethal than ever before when infected with germs.
Recently, the government has announced an immediate action plan to administer mobile courts to ensure mask wearing in an attempt to curb the second wave of Covid-19 in the country.
However, the plan will not succeed as long as the gross culture of spitting in public is not taken seriously.
As part of the new normal, wearing a face protective mask is a temporary requirement but changing vices like public spitting needs an enduring solution.
"The preclusion strategy ought to be a divergent one," said public health expert Dr Lelin Chowdhury, adding that an extensive awareness campaign accompanied by stringent regulatory enforcement can bring about the change.
"We would need to inculcate the significance of repelling the blatant act in our brain and put it into practice," he added.
But why do people spit?
Spitting is neither a physical obligation nor anything pleasant. This is just a habitual act of forcibly ejecting saliva or other substances from the mouth.
In many parts of the world, spitting in public is considered rude and is frowned upon but in some places, like ours, it is not socially offensive.
In the 19th century, the spittoon – a bowl for depositing long strings of dribble – was a common feature. Things only changed when tuberculosis hit in the 20th century and spitting became uncouth and a health issue.
More alarming for Bangladesh
The nuisance of spitting openly is a vile reality of our country and is more evident in crowded areas like big cities and towns.
The chilly northern breeze is foreshadowing the arrival of winter, and so is the growing sight of snot in public places.
Winter or what we may call the "official flu season" happens to be the time when many people suffer from cold, runny nose or sore throat. This seemingly mild ailment is no longer innocuous in the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic.
When people randomly spit or snivel in public places, the mucus is more susceptible to come in physical contact with others.
Moreover, when the weather is dry, especially in winter, the ejected spittle or nasal mucus dries out faster from the surface, but not its microscopic particles. They float in the air and find their easy access to the human body through the respiratory system.
"It is not only Covid-19 that has made spitting in public as a health concern," said Dr Lelin, adding, "random spitting in public is one of the core reasons that the number of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis patients is on the rise."
Dr Lelin, also the joint general secretary of Poribesh Bachao Andolon (Poba), said, "Poba is creating a guideline to help people adapt to the new normal for surviving in the post-pandemic world, where the issue of public spitting has been stressed upon unequivocally."
"You will see the very person spitting openly in our country will abstain from doing so in Singapore, only because he knows it is illegal to sputter there in public," he added.
In Singapore, one will be slapped with a fine of up to $1,000 if he spits in any public place – including markets, eateries, schools, theaters, public buildings, buses, or roads.
Not only Singapore, in New Zealand, a person could face 14 years in jail, and in Belgium, offenders could be fined up to 2,400 Euros and could face prison terms of between three months and two years.
It was back in 1884 when a women-led campaign of the Ladies' Health Protective Association (LHPA) first made it illegal to spit in public in New York city.
Keeping the nature of pandemic in mind, many countries in the world have taken stringent actions against spitting in public.
The authorities of New South Wales in Australia have introduced a fine of $5,000 for spitting or coughing on frontline workers. Offenders could also be awarded a jail term of up to six months.
In northern France, an order was passed on April 2 to fine citizens $74 for spitting in public, which can go up to $197 for late payment of the fine.
Moreover, a Norwegian court recently sentenced a man to 75 days in prison and $188 in fine for threatening to spit on a police officer, while a man was jailed for spitting and shouting "Corona Corona" at Singapore's Changi Airport hotel on 3 March.
When asked about the ordinance we have regarding spitting in public, DMP Deputy Commissioner (media and public relations) Walid Hossain said, "We have many such regulations that are usually implemented by magistrates."
"We shall, however, look into the issue of public spitting as sincerely as we have been in ensuring punishment for people who are not wearing masks, maintaining social distance or following health guidelines," he added.
Appreciating the issue highlighted by The Business Standard, Brigadier General Md Jubaidur Rahman, chief health official of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC), said, "It is an important perspective that needs to be addressed."
He added, "We shall most certainly associate this with our health awareness programmes in the coming days."