The government, especially the Ministry of Health (MOH), must ramp up public communication to continue to educate the public on the benefits of public masking, even in view of the possible lifting of mask mandates in Malaysia, especially after the festive season.
This is in view of the move yesterday by Bukit Aman to withdraw the order to stop the enforcement of mask mandates after a circular ordering police to stop issuing compounds to the public for not wearing masks went viral.
Even though a U-turn was eventually made, it points towards the likelihood that such mask mandates will be lifted, especially for outdoor settings.
However, if such a decision is made, it must first be made and announced by the MOH. A coordinated inter-ministry effort to educate the public must then be initiated, and a clear advisory on the importance and benefits of masking even without a mandate must also be publicised.
Different groups and communities, especially the vulnerable or those in close contact with the vulnerable. should continue with masking, even when outdoors.
The vulnerable would include the immunocompromised, and those live with such persons. In such cases, it is a good idea to continue wearing a mask and maintaining social distance around strangers, especially in indoor areas where the virus may circulate.
Masks are also important if you are unvaccinated or are spending time with the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated, including children, are at overwhelmingly higher risk of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19. Masks are also a must in hospitals or health care facilities, where there are many vulnerable people.
At the end of the day, any decision to relax restrictions Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs), even during endemicity, must be based on data and science.
Current data shows that in outdoor settings and open, ventilated areas, the likelihood of the disease spreading is much lower compared to indoor settings or less ventilated spaces.
Therefore, if we are outdoors in a non-congested area, the risk is lower, and it is somewhat safer not to put on a mask.
There is a simple way to determine if there is proper ventilation. If you cannot feel the wind, you are probably not in an area of good ventilation.
Such data was used when the Singapore government decided to allow unmasking only in outdoor areas, but still has mask mandates indoors, especially within crowded spaces such as public transportation.
With that said, data has also shown that relaxed Covid-19 restrictions can cause a vertical surge of cases that might overwhelm the health care system resulting in a diminished quality of care for all patients.
One of the reasons Malaysia has not seen a vertical surge, even when the Omicron variant was active, is because of more conservative SOPs, including compulsory masking.
However, this does not mean that the Omicron variant won’t spread in outdoors settings, especially in crowded areas. This is why I am glad that the Malaysian government did not follow Singapore’s approach of unmasking outdoors, especially during the Ramadan month, when congested spaces like Ramadan bazaars are everywhere.
With that said, the likelihood is that masking mandates especially for outdoors settings, will be relaxed after the Hari Raya celebrations., This does not mean we can let our guard down. I still encourage everyone, if possible, to put on a mask, especially in crowded outdoor areas, especially less-ventilated areas.
Before such a decision can be announced, the government must issue a clear advisory for the type of people who should continue masking, even when they are outdoors.
We do not want to see an uncontrollable vertical surge which was seen in countries that have relaxed their restrictions too drastically. We cannot assume that just because Omicron is “mild”, it will not overwhelm the health care system.
Dr Kelvin Yii is the Member of Parliament for Bandar Kuching.
- This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of CodeBlue.