Masks Down: Learning From Our Neighbors
The road to normalcy is now just around the corner. We will definitely celebrate a merrier Christmas in December, with Covid-19 variants and sub-variants proving to be less virulent than their ancestors. And with the further easing of mask mandates, we can foresee much-increased economic activities in the coming months.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., like his predecessor, is attuned to the needs of the people on the ground. People like to travel during the holidays, move and shop with ease or little discomfort, and exercise more freedom in their daily routine.
President Marcos as of press time is about to sign an executive order making the wearing of face masks indoors voluntary. We are one of the last few nations in Asia to ease the wearing of masks in public places. Taking off those masks indoors is a clear indication that we have defeated Covid-19 and that we are about to resume our old normal before the pandemic altered it in early 2020.
The Philippines is the odd man out in Southeast Asia. Lifting the mask mandate indoors here, as the Cabinet correctly noted, will enable the Philippines to be at par with our neighbors in the region, which have long liberalized their mask mandates.
Thailand, one of the hardest-hit by the pandemic with almost 4.7 million Covid-19 cases as of late last week, was the first to relax its mask mandate. Thailand on June 23 this year made the wearing of face masks optional in public places for both locals and foreign visitors.
Malaysia on Sept. 7 made the wearing of face masks in enclosed places also optional, except in public transport and medical facilities, while Singapore did it earlier on August 29.
Vietnam, meanwhile, eased the regulations on wearing of face masks on September 6. Hanoi no longer requires masks in public places, such as parks, restaurants, supermarkets, stadiums, movie theaters and other outdoor areas.
Australia ended on Sept. 11 its mask mandate for both domestic and international flights. Many Australian states, though, require mask wearing on other forms of public transport.
Mask wearing in Japan, however, is not a contentious issue. Face masks have been a common sight in Japan even before the onset of Covid-19 as a protection against colds and hay fever. Most people in Japan wear masks in all indoor situations, on public transportation and in the city streets. Many people go beyond the recommendation of experts and will wear masks.
But Japan, a favorite tourism destination for many Filipinos, reopened its borders to foreign travelers and reintroduced visa-free entry from October 11, 2022. Foreign tourists can now enter Japan again like during pre-pandemic days, especially for triple-vaccinated travelers.
Japan was one of the countries that shut down its borders early to foreign travelers. It closed most tourist attractions in the second quarter of 2022 and shuttered many of them again during the succeeding waves of the virus.
The Philippines shares the same experience. It introduced lockdowns and curfews, and restricted people’s mobility to curb the spread of the virus. The harsh measures resulted in the closure of many establishments and displaced millions of Filipino workers. Yet, we persevered as a
nation. We have successfully stopped the virus spread and have learned to live with Covid-19 despite the economic reopening.
The signs of normalcy are unmistakable. Travelers will no longer undergo a reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) test as a pre-departure requirement. Unvaccinated foreigners will be allowed entry into the Philippines as long as they present negative results of an antigen test taken 24 hours before departure. Or they can take an antigen test upon arrival in the Philippines.
But are we ready for the optional wearing of face masks indoors? I personally believe the Philippines is. Filipinos, especially our workers, are responsible people. They have protected themselves against the virus by way of vaccination, social distancing, hand washing and proper hygiene.
I will not be surprised, though, if many Filipinos will continue wearing face masks indoors despite the less rigid set-up, as what the Japanese have been doing for decades. We should always err on the side of caution.