Mask on or off? questions new policy, government messaging

CHEERS TO for its inquiry into the recently implemented voluntary mask-wearing policy. Aside from presenting data showing COVID-19 as a continuing concern, Cristina Eloisa Baclig reported  the government’s decision-making process on the matter, which hardly inspires public confidence.

Baclig’s first report on September 12 led with the fact that the Department of Health (DOH) initially expressed concern when Cebu City decided to make mask-wearing optional. But it quickly warmed up to the adoption of such a policy nationwide when the IATF recommended it, saying the DOH and the IATF had reached a compromise that the optional mask rule should  apply only to low-risk individuals and in outdoor settings. But even with the IATF deciding on voluntary masking as a nationwide policy, the DOH clarified that until an executive order (EO) is signed, the optional use of face masks is just a recommendation.

The article cited the observation of Dr. Tony Leachon, health reform advocate, that Maria Rosario Vergeire, DOH officer-in-charge (OIC), had “yielded” to the IATF in decision-making. Leachon asked if there is any public health expert in the task force, adding that “making the recommendation and saying it is not yet a policy will confuse the public amid projections of COVID cases increasing.” Leachon told it does not help that the DOH continues to promote mask-wearing through infographics while the IATF leaves the decision to individuals.’

Baclig cited disagreements from other experts, who thought it was too early to lift the mandatory face mask policy as the country’s COVID positivity rates remain higher than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) benchmark. The report also cited the comment of Dr. Maricar Limpin, president of the Philippine College of Physicians, that the recommendation would give a false sense of security and discourage people from getting their vaccinations and booster shots. Baclig then presented graphs that show the wide gap between the number of fully-vaccinated individuals and boostered individuals, adding Vergeire’s own admission that the DOH will not reach its target of giving boosters to 50 percent of the population by October 8, the 100th day of the Marcos administration.

In her second report on September 13, Baclig included the update that President Marcos has signed the EO, which in effect leaves Filipinos to “manage their own risks.” She cited lawyer Theodore Te’s observation that “open spaces and non-crowded areas with good ventilation” as indicated in the EO are open to personal interpretation. Leachon said individuals might choose not to wear masks at all, even when some sectors are still strongly encouraged by the EO to do so.

Baclig also reported that the Department of Tourism lauded the new policy. Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco referred to the example of countries that lifted mandatory mask rules and experienced increasing tourist arrivals as a result. But Baclig cited international reports that said in some of the countries Frasco mentioned, citizens and tourists still opt to wear masks.

There is no question that the new administration seems to be unconcerned about lowering COVID case numbers as it tried to normalize economic activities; Marcos has not even appointed a Health secretary after over three months in office. The DOH OIC cannot have as strong a voice in the IATF as that of a Health Secretary.

Letting the public decide as individuals also requires government to provide the facts about various issues: the protection vaccines and boosters provide, and the remarkable improvement of the availability of both in the last two years, with easier and more convenient access for the public. Government should also continue to flag the high positivity rate of the virus in the country in relation to the recommended WHO benchmark.

Meanwhile, media should do their part in keeping the public informed. They share that responsibility with government and must note the lack of real information about vaccines and boosters and how these protect people from severe COVID infection. The absence of government information is news itself – and that huge gap determines whether the public can make the decision that government has now passed on to the people.

Their role as watchdog should compel the media to expose the failure of government to provide information about the virus and the current level of threat. Only when it is completely forthright with the facts can it ask the public to bear the responsibility and go on their own. As Baclig reported, even countries that had stronger COVID response continue to exercise caution.