HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: In the battle of the mask mandate, let's keep them on

Minister of Health Joe Phaahla has withdrawn the mask mandate – one of the few safety and protection mechanisms in the fight to stop the spread of COVID-19. He also scrapped other regulations like limitations on gatherings and the easing of protocols and checks on travellers vising the country last week.

Wearing masks - as a rule - while opposed by many, enforced positive governmental sentiment toward the public, which are often lacking when it comes to the care of a vast majority of citizens. It made many of us feel that the ruling entities really cared about the safety of the people. Phaala, who has repealed Section 16B and 16C of the regulations relating to the Surveillance and the Control of Notifiable Medical Conditions made under the National Health Act, may make some feel like their freedom of choice has been restored, but it leaves many others feeling exposed, afraid and anxious. More than that, it makes people feel like their own freedom of choice may be under attack because of anit-vaxxers, anti-maskers and militant citizens who may criticise, antagonise and confront individuals about their personal decision to continue masking up. Such altercations have already been shared by some Twiiter uses – as early as less than 24 hours after the mandate was lifted, in fact.

The psychological and emotional impact of these concerns may be subjective and difficult to measure, however, a broader comparison to other countries who have switched course and masked-off make the impact of that decision and it’s numerical implications strikingly obvious.

For example, in April of this year, Miami listed its mask mandate for the Transport Security Administration employees. Spare a thought for all those people at the airport, a vacuum for germs, who were eager to show face and who suffered the consequences. Just two weeks after the change in regulations, COVID-19 infections saw a spike of 50%. On April 19th, the day of the new ruling, there were 359 reported cases at Miami International, the very next day, by close of business, that number jumped to 542. This bears witness to the fact that the decrease in transmissions rates is simply not a justifiable enough variable to scrap basic safety measures. A bigger threat exists without the mask than with.

Before citizens face off in the battle of the mask mandate, take heed of these very simple facts, of many others. There is and should be major concern about the pandemic, the potential for new waves, an increase in infection rates. There should be more awareness about the long term effects of contracting the virus itself, even if you do not have a comorbidity. Omicron (for now) is not just like getting a cold for a lot of people. There are many millions out there who were perfectly healthy before being infected and whose quality of life has been diminished drastically and shockingly because of post-contraction symptoms and the debilitating danger that is Long COVID.

Lower numbers do not mean that the pandemic is over, and the fact that many people in South Africa believe that this is the case should be alarming. Also, the argument that masks have been soul-crushing and an erasure of identity is simply too fickle an argument to make in the face of many who struggle with chronic illnesses, comorbidities and extremely compromised immune systems. If ever there was a time to self-regulate and exercise a societal kindness, that time is now.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa. Follow her on Twitter.