Mask up or lock down? | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

Mask up or lock down?

/ 05:03 AM September 04, 2022

It is no longer mandatory to wear a face mask in outdoor and open spaces in Cebu City — a move that has been met with caution by authorities who said it’s not time to be complacent against COVID-19.

Cebu City’s Executive Order No. 5, which took effect on Sept. 1, does have exemptions: those who are sick and immunocompromised are still required to wear a mask, especially outside their homes. But the EO noted that wearing a mask for most people has merely become a matter of compliance while costing money and causing inconvenience, even affecting their “biopsychosocial and spiritual being.” It also stated that the “lethal effect of the pandemic is already wearing off and that vaccination has been proven to be an effective means in containing the spread and the impact” of COVID-19.

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Sure, the number of COVID cases has been on a downtrend globally, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting a 16-percent decrease in the last week of August. Locally, active cases continue to go down and no infections have been reported, so far, in schools since face-to-face classes resumed last month.

But the Department of Health (DOH) also projects 9,000 new infections by end-September due to the school opening, and experts predict that the BA.5 subvariant could reverse the declining trend. And even the WHO warned in its weekly epidemiological update released on Aug. 31 that current trends “should be interpreted with caution,” noting how several countries have been progressively changing testing strategies that, in turn, have resulted in lower overall number of tests made and, therefore, lower number of cases detected. In other words, the decreasing number of infections cannot be used as an indicator that the pandemic is waning or herd immunity has been achieved.

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The world must learn to adapt to COVID by preventing another surge but not living as if the virus does not exist. “Countries must decide how they will live with COVID-19—and living with COVID-19 does not mean ignoring it,” stated an article published by Nature magazine last January. Boosting global access to vaccines, it said, will be in the best interest of all, especially since more devastating COVID variants are likely to emerge and cause outbreaks in places where vaccination rates are low.

Here’s the problem: the government’s vaccination program continues to be besieged by wastage and accessibility issues. As of Sept. 2, the DOH reported that 160.8 million doses have already been administered, including 72.6 million complete doses. But the number of boosters administered is dismal at only 18 million, which is only 25 percent of those who have received their complete doses. Those who have received their first booster, meanwhile, now face waning immunity and, assuming they received it in January, would need to go for a second booster asap. But this apparently does not concern Malacañang, with the press secretary stating that administering the second booster to more people will not address the wastage problem, and should be administered only to those 50 years old and above, and 18-49 years old with comorbidities. People who do not fall under these categories have been turned away at vaccination sites even as vaccine hesitancy hounds the rest of the population and P13 billion worth of vaccines have already expired.

While it’s true that vaccines are not insurance against the virus, they help minimize the effects of COVID, which could cause lingering health problems even after recovery such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive issues. These lingering post-COVID effects could impact long-term quality of life, that’s why health experts strongly advocate that prevention is better than cure — and one effective way to prevent infection, as has been proven over the past two years, is by wearing a mask.

Consider this: countries that previously lifted the mask mandate like Germany, Austria, Cyprus, and India have reintroduced mask wearing after experiencing a surge in COVID cases. DOH officer in charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said wearing a mask “reduces the chance of you getting sick by about 70 to 80 percent. Wearing a mask is just a small sacrifice to protect ourselves.”

But Cebu City Mayor Michael Rama, while acknowledging that preventing COVID infection should be a collective responsibility, reasoned out that people should be given the freedom to choose whether to wear a mask as a form of “self-preservation and protection.”

The DOH is now worried that other local governments would soon follow Cebu. And given the country’s archipelagic nature, where there is freedom of movement between islands, making the use of masks optional increases the risk of infection and can spell disaster that the fragile health system can ill afford.

As an epidemiologist said: “Wearing masks should probably be one of the last things we stop doing.”

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For such a small inconvenience, the choice is simple: mask up or lock down?

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