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High stakes

/ 04:02 AM August 31, 2020

Face masks have never been more precious. After the Taal Volcano ashfall earlier this year, people rushed to buy masks, especially the coveted N95 ones. Then March came, and with it the realization of the risks and insidious nature of COVID-19 infections. We navigated through online marketplaces for masks, risking fake surgical-grade ones, bogus sellers, and hoarders. And it wasn’t just our country struggling through a crisis of personal protective equipment (PPE); during the first waves of COVID-19 infections in New York, a colleague wrote about how much she had once taken N95 masks for granted. N95 masks, previously used only for certain procedures or exposures and easily discarded, were now being used over multiple hospital shifts because of this crisis. Currently there is a lot less noise about drives for masks and other PPE, but they continue to be a precious commodity, now required in all public and commercial spaces. As the (admittedly heterogeneous) evidence in support of masks continues to grow, our policies for mask-wearing have evolved accordingly. For now, the general, evidence-based consensus for rational mask use seems to be that for large, open-air spaces with persons quite far apart and with very brief exposure, risk of transmission is low and, thus, masks might not be an absolute requirement; but as ventilation gets poorer, spaces get smaller, and contact grows longer, risk gets progressively higher, and masks have been thought to mitigate those risks in a fairly cost-effective way, considering how even one severe COVID-19 case can deplete a family’s or a health institution’s resources. As the World Health Organization says, even a partial protective effect during a pandemic can have a major impact on transmission.

Our mask-wearing behaviors are far from perfect. We constantly see people wearing masks not covering their mouths and noses appropriately, even in health care settings. We frequently see behaviors done to comply with the bare minimum of IATF instructions, like wearing of masks, but also sharing them with each other, or liberally touching the masks’ surfaces. We may have a long way to go, but public education on basic sanitary measures has gone a long way toward driving our behavior to be more vigilant. Surveys published last month noted that a high percentage of Filipinos — 91 percent — claimed compliance to wearing face masks outdoors. Whether this is reflected in appropriate mask-wearing behaviors in reality is uncertain, but it may at least reflect an awareness of social obligation and vigilance in a majority of Filipinos. That we are quick to criticize public figures wearing masks inappropriately or not at all also shows this awareness.

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One might, then, feel justified in worrying that anti-mask rhetoric should gain traction locally. Only yesterday, thousands of protesters claiming to be anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine, and anti-mask gathered in London, echoing sentiments of similar US groups. Some claim the virus is a hoax and a scare tactic; some think COVID-19 was manufactured in labs; others claim the illness is real, but not as severe as it’s cracked up to be. Impossible then not to think about Larry Gadon’s statements that the virus is “curable.” (If he means “manageable,” it may be, but it takes lives and depletes resources along the way.) Unlike local anti-terrorism law ralliers, these protesters wore no masks and gathered in tightly packed crowds. “Masks are muzzles,” their signs said. “Masks reduce immunity.” (They don’t, otherwise we health professionals would never have worn them in the pre-COVID-19 era.)

This muddle of pseudoscience plus conspiracy theorists versus China, “big pharma,” the WHO, or any convenient target, reflects a kind of thinking we really, really don’t need right now. We have a population that already finds basic reading comprehension and the filtering of fake news a profound challenge. To promote this type of rhetoric here is a frightening thing. On the part of the media, coverage of such claims should be responsible, and measured, and juxtaposed with resources and statements that may help the unwary reader navigate closer to the truth. When Gadon was interviewed (while maskless) recently, he echoed the same anti-mask, DOH-policies-as-scare-tactic sentiments. Such claims of “marami na akong nabasa” and anecdotal evidence must not be allowed to take the place of legitimate scientific consensus. The media must be conscious of the role it has played in giving such statements more credence and coverage than necessary, especially when the stakes are this high.

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