Is it time for India to go without masks?


Many countries across the world have been working towards doing away with restrictions that were enforced during the pandemic. The boldest of them has been doing away with a mandate to wear masks in outdoor settings. Mint examines the rationale behind these moves:

Which countries are relaxing mask norms?

The UK, Canada, Singapore, most of European Union (EU) countries, except Germany, and all US states, except Hawaii, have relaxed mandates about wearing masks in outdoor settings. However, it does not mean they are doing away with masks  altogether.  In the UK, though masks are not required in outdoor settings or in public transport, they are still “strongly recommended” by health authorities. The onus is on individuals and private establishments. In Canada, the mask mandates are out for children in schools while certain provincial governments have asked individuals and businesses to implement their own rules.

What is the rationale behind such decisions?

These decisions appear to be a trade-off made by the authorities. There are several studies that have shown that the risk of covid-19 transmission is low outdoors. Coronavirus spreads most easily in congregated settings such as indoors. Second, mask fatigue has been setting in and many governments have realized that coercion does not work. Besides, mask fatigue could lead people to avoid wearing masks everywhere, including in high-risk settings. Policymakers, therefore, believe a more relaxed approach to the mandate may ensure that people keep wearing masks in high-risk settings, especially indoors.

Photo: Reuters

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Photo: Reuters

Which countries have not relaxed mandates?

Most Asian countries are yet to drop mask mandates. Recently, countries such as Hong Kong and China witnessed a record rise in infections since the outbreak in 2019. South Korea, a country that dealt with the pandemic efficiently, said this week that dropping mask mandates at this juncture is the “last thing to worry about”.

What does scientific evidence say?

Most of the published work on masks shows that they did play a role in cutting down the infection. However, these studies were conducted before vaccinations began. Masks prevent transmission and cut the risks at the community level. Organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the US believe that mass vaccination numbers have achieved that goal. In its revised guidance, the organization has recommended preventive measures based on the community that an individual lives in.

What is India’s stance on the mask mandate?

India’s health secretaries have maintained that wearing masks at all times will be the new normal. Yet, anecdotal evidence shows that mask compliance in India has come down. There are states such as Maharashtra that plan to relax the requirement for wearing masks. The state’s covid task force thinks the state has cut the transmission because of mass vaccination. Kerala will lift the mask mandate in a phased manner. The risk-averse approach of the Centre might get overruled if state governments take their own decision.



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