MAY 3 — Last week, the Health Ministry dropped the mask mandate for outdoors while retaining it indoors. Even though this decision appears like the worst of both worlds — the pro-mask camp claiming it puts us more at risk, the anti-mask one complaining about its half-heartedness —I think at the very least it helps to move the discussion forward.
There’s nothing like taking actual steps to get people thinking. As I suspect most people are familiar with the case for a mask mandate, I'd like to be a little contrarian here by putting forth the opposite view.
It is interesting to note that the removal of mask mandates (around the world) was occasioned by the fact that hospitalisations and deaths have been decoupled from the rise in cases.
Since masks are meant to prevent spread, if spread has no major impact on the healthcare system, it would make sense that "preventing spread" is no longer a priority.
This is the primary reason why many European countries and the United States are relaxing their restrictions and reopening their borders.
Nevertheless, there remain many voices who believe that mask mandates are important.
I’m no scientist or epidemiologist but I’d like to summarise what many experts are saying about the case against mask mandates. Since Malaysia’s vaccination rates are very high and we’ve already been hit with Omicron, I figure this is a good time to examine this issue more closely.
The case for mask mandates, at first sight, appears intuitive.
With such a highly transmissible variant like Omicron, it only makes sense for everyone to be masked in order to better contain the virus.
Masks appear to be even more critical for schools, as each school is potentially a super-spreader given how children like to play and gather in groups with minimal regard for social distancing.
This could be even more urgent if one has an elderly or immuno-compromised member of the family whom the child goes home to.
This reasoning may sound airtight until we hear the case against forcing everyone to wear masks.
So, why are some health and medical experts saying that mask mandates should be dropped?
First, at least in Malaysia, our mask mandates are "violated" a million times a day in restaurants, cafes’, salons, etc.
Even if I take a very pro-mask position (and I confess I used to), I can’t see how millions of people removing their masks to have their chicken rice doesn’t render the mandate pretty much superfluous.
This is almost like having a national lockdown which applies only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
Secondly, the risk of vaccinated adults suffering serious illnesses from Covid-19 (let alone the Omicron strain) is very low. Once a person is fully vaxxed (see note 1), masks become even less necessary especially if the priority objective is to eradicate serious illnesses and sustain the healthcare system instead of "flattening the curve."
To reiterate an earlier point, the reason why mask mandates (and Covid restrictions in general) have been dropped (at least in Europe and the USA) is because curve-flattening is no longer associated with saving the healthcare system.
Since Covid-19 has been "priced into" the healthcare system, it would’ve become just like any other disease prior to 2020 i.e. no need for mandates or restrictions which affect the whole country.
But what about people who remain unvaxxed?
Well, clearly they will be at higher risks than vaxxed folks but, and I know this sounds tough, perhaps after all this time we should learn to respect their decision and accept the fact that they’re willing to take that risk. This is even more possible now because when a majority of people have been vaccinated.
But what about the immuno-compromised or the elderly or those with comorbidities who have been vaccinated but are still at risk?
This is, unfortunately, the kind of decision societies make all the time. Do we have to make policies which affect a majority of the population because of a minority? Sometimes the answer is Yes, sometimes it’s No, hence the need for a lot of thinking.
For this issue, given vaccines and the availability of more treatments for Covid-19, do we still need to make millions of people wear masks indefinitely for the sake of the thousands? Would that truly be the most rational thing to do?
To reiterate, these are not simple questions and dropping or upholding mask mandates is not an easy decision. Hence, and again, the importance of sound reasoning and debate.
Because surely the last thing we wish to mandate is thinking itself.
* Note 1: There’s a lot of news about how the vaccines’ effectiveness waned over time. However, if you read up about “memory T and B cells” you’ll discover that vaccines continue to offer protection against serious illness over time.
**This is the personal opinion of the columnist.