The Story behind COVID Caller Tunes

-Dr. Moushumi Bhattacharjee

India too is reeling under a destructive second wave of Covid-19 like many of the biggest pandemics in history which came in multiple waves sometimes centuries apart. The first wave of the bubonic plague devastated Europe in the 1300s, killing millions of people. Studies reveal that though cases initially but there continued to be isolated outbreaks, until a second wave of a more lethal strain hit in the 1500s and then a third in the 1800s. The 20th century witnessed a second wave of Spanish flu which was much more deadly than the first.
Likewise, with the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, the number of cases dropped at the start of the summer and then speedily grew again in the autumn. But the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, was different in the sense that it never saw a second wave. A resilient global response helped to eradicate the virus. So, the question that arises now is what lesson does this all leave us with COVID-19?
It was in the month of March 2020, when COVID-19 was officially declared as a pandemic, by the World Health Organisation. Initially, though India was not twirling under the pressure of an alarming rise in cases of coronavirus but still the Indian government initiated many measures to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Out of all the efforts, one particular move that caught the attention of all Indians, as well as many outside, is how the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare made use of phone connections to spread awareness about coronavirus and COVID-19 in the form of ‘covid caller tunes’.
A caller tune is the sound a caller to a mobile phone hears before the receiver picks the call. Typically, the default ringtones are free, but caller tunes are not. The phone owner often pays the telecommunication company for the service. Caller tunes are the opposite of ringtones. Unlike ringtones, which the call recipients hear notifying them of incoming calls, in case of caller tunes- it’s the caller who hear the ring back tones when they make calls. The caller tunes constitute of messages, songs or instrumental tunes. While ringtones are managed by the phone’s owner under the settings option, caller tunes are managed by the mobile telecommunication operator.
By requesting companies like Airtel, Vodafone and Jio to replace usual caller tune with a coughing sound, the government of India started its unique attempt to spread awareness on the deadly virus. Though the move by the government earned mixed reactions initially from the users on various social media platforms but gradually this became a habit and in some cases it was found that some subscribers started imitating and reciting the caller tunes along with the phone calls. While some lauded the style in which the awareness was being spread, on the other hand, some were downright critical of the annoying coughing sound that disrupted the peace of mind. However, with time the coughing noise vanished with new messages on unlock series streaming in, which too gradually gave its way to messages on vaccination drive and its importance.
As the service providers are playing this caller tune mandated by TRAI to which most subscribers have no choice but to listen to it while making a call. But this caller tune creating awareness on Covid-19 seems to have become an irritant for many while most people are seen not even paying bare attention to the messages delivered. A survey conducted by the students of the department of Communication and Journalism, Gauhati University (spread across many districts of Assam) reveals that 90% users want an end of this mandatory tune. The survey was conducted to find out the success and reach of the Covid caller tunes.
The survey also highlighted that almost 85% people said that they do not like the tunes and most of the time they put the phone in speaker mode and continue doing some other work while the phone gets answered to avoid listening to the messages. 40% subscribers also complained that at the time of making any urgent call, these caller tunes serve as an annoyance and it makes them lose their patience. Some also pointed out that when vaccines are not available for the public and booking a slot for the same is a far cry then what is the use of a message accompanying the caller tune asking people to get vaccinated?
The survey indicated that though the caller tune was created to guide people about the SOP’s but people are now mentally tired of listening to this tune. People flouting Covid protocols are the blatant example of the partial failure of these caller tunes at least in the state of Assam. Since last year we have seen how Covid is creating mayhem by snatching our loved ones, it has toppled our healthcare system, but still people continue to break protocol concerning face masks and social distancing. Masks are either used as ‘chin protectors’ or they hang by the ears or not being worn at all. A research conducted by ApnaMask, an initiative by EkDesh, also revealed that only 44 per cent of Indian population wear a face mask, while 90 per cent people are aware of the guidelines issued by the government.
Inspite of the Assam government imposing a fine of Rs. 1000 on the basis of The Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 (sections 3) for not wearing a mask or spitting in public, irresponsible citizens were seen roaming around with their face and nose not covered. The authorities in their statement made it clear that in case someone fails to wear a store-bought mask, they can make use of the traditional Assamese gamosa, or any home-made covers or even handkerchiefs. The fine also applied to all those who had their masks hanging around their necks and ears as decorative accessories.
The pandemic concerned all of us by making people alienated, relationships dehumanised thereby giving rise to a crisis in communication. As per the latest figures, districts like Dhubri and Tinsukia are on top of the charts with covid cases rising at an alarming rate because of sheer negligence by the public. But as we struggle to defend ourselves from the ‘cynical unseen’ enemy which has already dispensed a shock to our existence, it’s time to wrap up everything with hope and with our Covid appropriate actions and behaviours.

(People seen flouting covid norms at busy Fancy Bazaar area in Guwahati. PIC- UB Photos)
Dr. Moushumi Bhattacharjee is an Independent Researcher and Folk Media Enthusiasts.

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