LAST MONTH, THE Maharashtra cabinet had a discussion on the removal of masks. This was because the Omicron wave had subsided. Mumbai now sometimes sees the number of cases in double digits. Almost certainly, the vast majority have been infected and developed antibodies. Any immediate future wave seems unlikely. The pandemic could very well have become endemic but that is only something that time will tell given that the future is unpredictable. A Hindu Business Line report on the cabinet meeting said: “The State government’s Covid-19 Task Force will study the possibility of canceling mandatory face masks in the State and submit the report to the government. The State Cabinet meeting held on Thursday discussed the possibility of canceling mandatory masks. Some of the cabinet members said that many countries including England have scrapped rules that made masks compulsory.” And yet, more than a month later, the state’s Health Minister Rajesh Tope, who keeps getting asked this question, had no definitive answer. Maharashtra, this week, in fact, reduced further most of the lockdown curbs to a point that life can be almost normal. Cinemas, gyms, restaurants, etc, for example, can now operate at 100 per cent capacity. But there was still the persistence of the mask. This was a decision too early to take, in the reckoning of the government. As a Mint report said: “When asked about further relaxation of Covid norms, including doing away with the face mask rule, Tope said, “Chief Minister [Uddhav Thackeray] is constantly saying that we cannot assume that pandemic is over. So the decision on mask liberty will be taken after careful consideration.””
The reason why in the first place they began to mull the question—other countries doing away with mask mandates—is only increasing. A day before US President Joe Biden gave his State of the Union address this week, the White House staff got a memo of the mask mandate’s removal. New York Times reported: ““Effective tomorrow, Tuesday, March 1, we are lifting the requirement that fully vaccinated individuals wear masks on the White House campus,” the memo said. It added: “Some individuals will choose to continue to wear masks to protect themselves. We must respect these choices.”” Almost all US states have relaxed the requirement. A CNN report of March 1 began by noting, “Even some of the most ardent supporters of Covid-19 precautions are ditching mask mandates as health officials release new guidelines and hospitalizations plummet. Across the country, more governors are letting go of mask rules—including in states that have long held on to school mask mandates. California, Oregon and Washington state will shift from mask requirements to mask recommendations in schools starting at 11:59 p.m. March 11, according to a statement from the governors Monday. California is also dropping its requirement for unvaccinated people to wear masks in most indoor settings starting Tuesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office said. But masks will still be strongly recommended for everyone in most indoor settings.”
A recommendation, according to one school of dissenting thought in the pandemic, was how it should always have been. People should be allowed to choose their own safety levels. What a mandate does is a legal insistence, the state telling you to either comply voluntarily or be forced into it under threat of punishment. That has precedent in history, as in the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. But those were few and far between unlike today when it is an overarching global phenomenon. This is probably the first time that the mask has become a fixture of what the human race wears.
The mask mandate also led to peculiarities. Like the irrational idea that even inside a car when there is no one else but you, masks must be worn. Once the state feels compelled to take steps in the face of a panic that they do not know how to quell, overreach is certain. Places like Delhi and Mumbai where this was enforced has done away with the rule.
Did masks do anything to change the course of the pandemic? If we look at the numerous waves and how prevalent infections have been, probably not. You could still make an argument for masks for the Delta variant but the virus just got smarter. With a contagion like the Omicron variant, cloth masks were simply useless. And N95 masks, which in theory did work, need to be worn in the correct manner as medical professionals are trained to do, usually something that lay people have no clue about.
Like Mumbai, Delhi, too, has done away with most lockdown restrictions except for the wearing of masks. In the absence of any unexpected virus twists, it will be the same in all of India soon. The shedding of the mask will be the final signal that says the country now believes Covid is behind us
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A possible salutary offshoot of wearing face masks in India has been, at least anecdotally, a reduction in the number of other common respiratory diseases, like colds and flus. In countries like Japan, there was a culture of wearing face masks if you are ill even before Covid, something done for the safety of others. India has had no such traditions of health courtesy but once forced onto us, it might have done some good. But will we persist? Almost definitely not. Public health experts say that even if masks are made voluntary, there would be conditions—high transmission pockets or crowded events—where one should wear masks.
Chances are only a fraction will be interested in such self-guidance. Even now in most cities, among the vast numbers who don’t wear masks in the open, you can also see policemen, though they are the ones who have to catch and fine the unmasked. Without prodding from their superiors, they don’t feel any need to. In any case, in the open air, masks are not really needed as a preventive measure. A recent New York Times article titled ‘Should You Still Wear a Mask’, which had the opinion of experts, had this to say: “There’s little scientific evidence to show that face coverings offer much added protection in many outdoor spaces such as sidewalks or parks. Things get a little hairier with crowds, like at a concert or sports venue.”
Like Mumbai, Delhi, too, has done away with most lockdown restrictions except for the wearing of masks. In the absence of any unexpected virus twists, it will be the same in all of India soon. The shedding of the mask will be the final signal that says the country now believes Covid is behind us, the marker that divides the pandemic and post-pandemic eras. It was also the mask’s presence that signalled the pandemic. I remember two years ago in March, a week or two before the prime minister announced the first lockdown, travelling in a suburban local in Mumbai and seeing a man with a mask in there and sniggering to myself on the absurdity of it. But soon, all of India, including me, had a collection of masks and it became an ordinary item of everyday life. But when there is a choice, it is an irritant. Most people only wore them because of social peer pressure and the fear of the police. It is not something that anyone would find hard to give up except the government that has to make this decision.