Ending the mask mandate | Daily News

Ending the mask mandate

It was just over 26 months ago that the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the whole world. It was found that the virus could be transmitted from person to person through air. There is no cure yet for any viral disease and COVID is no exception.

Thus the focus was shifted immediately to preventive measures which included social distancing, washing hands frequently with soap and water and wearing face masks. There is no doubt whatsoever that face masks work, regardless of the type- surgical, KN 95 or N 95. Many international studies have shown that masks are at least 90 per cent effective at filtering viruses of every kind. As an added benefit, they also filter dust and other particles in the air that can cause respiratory ailments.

Masks are regularly worn in countries such as Japan and Taiwan, where the prevalence of respiratory diseases is remarkably low. It is perhaps this practice that enabled these countries to keep the Coronavirus virus at bay to a great extent, at least in the initial stages.

It is in this backdrop that the Sri Lankan Government too imposed a mask mandate throughout the country just a couple of months after COVID was detected here. Unlike in some other countries where mask mandates proved to be controversial, Sri Lankans rapidly adopted this practice without grumbling. Thus mask wearing here was near-universal, though Police did find violators.

But there is no doubt that along with the highly successful vaccination drive (now in its fourth stage), masks helped in a big way to curb the spread of COVID-19. It also helped to create a whole new line of business for our garment and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) manufacturers. Although masks were initially imported from China, our manufacturers have now cornered the market, saving valuable foreign exchange at a crucial time. Moreover, there are many self-employed persons and small-time business persons who sell these masks by the roadside. They apparently get a good income as one person needs 30 disposable masks per month, though this number can go down if using reusable masks.

Just a few months ago, the Government removed the mask mandate, only to re-impose it the very next day. This was a wise move, as the Coronavirus had still not been eradicated totally anywhere in the world. In any case, even after the mask requirement was removed that day, the people continued to wear masks.

Now the Government has again removed the mask mandate, though we have to weigh the pros and cons of this measure carefully.

It is worth noting that COVID -19 is still in our midst, although the numbers are not being reported now. There is almost zero testing, so we do not know how many people are infected and could be carrying the virus. There has also been a spike in COVID -19 cases in many countries in our region. In this light, removing the mask mandate is not a very prudent move. Besides, there was no mass agitation for abolishing the mask mandate here unlike in some other countries.

Mercifully, the Government has given the public the freedom to wear face masks if they so desire, even though masks will not be mandatory from today. This is a welcome move given that masks can prevent the spread of many other diseases including the Common Cold and Influenza. It is also advisable to wear face masks in crowded buses and trains. Our health sector is also facing a crisis due to a lack of medicines and certain equipment and this is certainly not a good time to fall seriously ill. It is also not known whether we have imported anti-COVID medications such as Paxlovid due to the forex crisis.

However, it is true that some people find it inconvenient or irritating to wear masks for long hours, sometimes up to 12 hours a day depending on their profession. Some also experience breathing difficulties. Many people also complain of a persistent pain in the ears as a result of wearing ear loop face masks, which happen to be the most common type.

We also have to consider the environmental impact of face masks. At least 15 million face masks are thrown away every day in Sri Lanka. This is a huge quantity by any measure. These face masks will end up in landfills and also in the ocean, where they could take years to disintegrate. Face masks thrown away with the ear loops intact could pose a danger to land and marine animals, as they could get entangled in the ear loops. Thus when disposing of face masks, the ear loops should be cut off. The authorities should find a hygienic way to recycle face masks for some other purpose and those who will continue to wear face masks must be encouraged to purchase KN 95 masks which can be re-worn a few times following the manufacturer’s guidelines.

It is important to remember at all times that we are not completely out of the woods as far as COVID-19 is concerned. It is thus important to follow all stipulated health guidelines for the time being.

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