President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. has issued Executive Order No. 3 that allowed the “voluntary wearing of face masks in outdoor settings.” EO No. 3, which was signed on Sept. 12, 2022, was based on the recommendation of the Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) after it took into consideration the fact that 93 percent of our target population (equivalent to 72 million Filipinos) have been fully vaccinated. It also noted that a further 18 million individuals have received booster doses.
The IATF recommendation also stressed the fact that most of the country’s provinces, cities and municipalities are currently under the lowest Alert Level 1. In addition, President Marcos’ order noted that many of our neighboring countries in ASEAN and in other parts of the world have liberalized their mask mandates without any serious surges in Covid-19 infections.
But more significantly, the President emphasized the need to continue reviving our economy severely battered by the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns. He explained that despite the “sustained growth” of our gross domestic product (GDP) uncertainties and obstacles remain ahead.
So, what exactly is the policy now? I have noted in past columns that it is important to learn from the lessons of the past in order to craft a sensible and effective strategy to combat and manage this ongoing pandemic. One of the issues before was ineffective communications. Our people need to understand what is happening and why we are doing what we are doing. So I hope that the current administration clearly communicates this shift in strategy in order to avoid misconceptions.
The order says that the wearing of face masks is now voluntary in “open spaces and non-crowded outdoor areas with good ventilation (underscoring mine).” In addition, those individuals who are not fully-vaccinated, senior citizens and immunocompromised individuals are encouraged to wear masks at all times.
What this means is that we are still required to wear face masks in “indoor private or public establishments including public transportation…and in outdoor settings where physical distancing cannot be maintained (underscoring mine). If you are attending an event even in an open-air setting but it is crowded and distancing is impossible you absolutely have to wear your mask. I think this is the key aspect of the order that government needs to communicate clearly.
The order should not be construed as totally liberalizing the wearing of face masks. It does not say that we should throw away and stop buying masks. What the order does is appeal to our sense of personal responsibility. We need to assess the risks wherever we are. If you go to a park with very few people then by all means remove your mask. But if you go to your barangay’s plaza to watch a basketball game or any event that is very crowded then you need to protect yourself and the people you live with by wearing a mask.
The order emphasized, and this is very important, that the minimum public health standards (MPHS) “shall continue to be implemented consistent with the principle of shared accountability.” This is the key — our sense of personal responsibility and shared accountability. It is the responsibility of government to balance public health issues and economic recovery. The easing of the mask requirement is a step in that direction. It is our responsibility to make sure that even as the mask mandate has been relaxed — allowing us to enjoy the freedom we once enjoyed before the pandemic — we need to think of the health of the people we love and others we come in contact with. It is our responsibility to ensure that we are fully vaccinated and boosted so that we not only protect ourselves from hospitalization and sever disease but also our loved ones.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it best: “We are not there yet. But the end is in sight.” And that end of the pandemic, how soon we get there, will depend largely, on our ability to exercise personal responsibility and shared accountability when we go out in public places.