Mask wearing, particularly in the United States, from the earliest stages of the pandemic to now, has been used as a tool to advance political agendas.
In Trinidad and Tobago, we experienced our own version of anti-vaccine sentiments. Who could forget the January march around the Savannah by the First Wave Movement which resulted in tear gas being fired into the crowds of protesters? Beyond the politics of mask wearing, however, it is necessary to recognise when and where mask mandates are most needed.
At the risk of seeming anti-mask, I’ll say very early on that I’m a strong advocate for mask wearing. I’m also a firm believer in taking a common-sense approach when it comes to making decisions that may be unnecessary. I’m referring specifically to wearing masks when outdoors. To mask or not to mask?
Even non-political institutions such as the World Health Organisation have wavered on their mask-wearing recommendations. In March 2020, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme Dr Mike Ryan stated there was “no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit”. In June, WHO would change its position, with Director General Tedros saying “the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks”. In February 2021, the CDC then released new research which found that double masking offered more protection. Since April 2022, the CDC has dropped mask mandates for indoors as well as transportation. What all of this shows is that decisions about mask wearing have always been “touch and go” or suggested and enforced in reaction to transmission trends.
If the Covid-19 pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we need to be agile in our ability to adapt to unforeseen changes in our daily lives.
At one point of the pandemic, T&T’s response to it resulted in the country being ranked number one in a report published by the University of Oxford. One of the criteria for the ranking was based on transmission control, of which mask mandates was one. At this time, and especially with most of the earlier pandemic restrictions being retracted, our approach to mask wearing ought to be nuanced and particular to the current moment.
In T&T further mask restrictions came into effect on August 31, 2020, when the mask bill required citizens to wear masks in any vehicle occupied by multiple people. This particular restriction, however, while falling under the public health ordinances, was more of a reflection of the Government’s inability to solve the perennial problem of “PH” taxi services than it was due to the logic of transmission control. This restriction was since rolled back in March 2022, with Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh stating that families will no longer be required to be masked in vehicles. Emphasis on the word “families”—a word left up to the interpretation of the TTPS, as Deyalsingh would go on to add.
Mask restrictions such as these were less about public health and more about papering over the cracks in our transport system. If restrictions such as these have been revisited in light of changes to the spread of the pandemic, then other restrictions can be revisited as well—such as changes to wearing masks when not indoors. A study of face-mask mandates in Europe by Boretti (2021) compared the generalised mandating of face masks in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands with countries that did not mandate face masks such as Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark and Iceland. Boretti found the lack of mask mandates did not increase the number of cases or the number of fatalities. Furthermore, a literature review by Bulfone et al (2020) found that of the five studies related to Covid-19 transmission, “less that ten per cent of reported transmission occurred in outdoor settings, less than five per cent of cases were related to outdoor occupations, and the odds of transmission or super-spreading are much lower outdoors”.
What both studies invite us to consider is a more nuanced approach to public ordinances that require face masking outdoors.
T&T has done relatively well with managing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s time the mask mandates that were put in place at the height of the pandemic be carefully looked at to ensure we aren’t just wearing masks for the sake of it.
—Author Jarrel De Matas is a PhD candidate and teaching associate, Department of English, College of Humanities and Fine Arts, University of Massachusetts, Amherst.