Cabaero: WHO on mass gatherings

Nini Cabaero

THE World Health Organization (WHO) has updated its guidelines on mass gatherings in the context of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic and there is nothing in the document about arresting violators.

This is because the guidelines present the risk factors but leave it to the government of the country to come up with the rules. The WHO recognizes there can be “substantial” political, cultural and economic implications to limiting mass gatherings.

The WHO first released its guidelines on mass gatherings last March when countries went on lockdown. The updated guidelines were issued two months later or on May 29, 2020, to incorporate what the WHO said it learned about the pandemic.

The updated guidelines defined mass gathering as events that could “amplify the transmission of the virus and potentially disrupt the host country’s response capacity.”

The document recognizes that mass gatherings can have “substantial political, cultural, social, and economic implications,” so it left it to the government to assess the importance and necessity of an event and, if allowed to take place, consider that the public health risks be adequately addressed and mitigated.

These rules are timely in the Philippine context as the holding of masses in churches is expected to resume today, Sunday. Also, there were the arrests made of protesting drivers in Caloocan City and anti-terrorism bill protesters at the University of the Philippines Cebu campus in Barangay Lahug, Cebu City, for violating ordinances on physical distancing and mass gatherings. But those arrested said they wore face masks and kept their distance from each other.

Eight business groups, members of the academe and other sectors have voiced opposition to provisions of the new anti-terrorism bill at the House of Representatives. They said House Bill 6875, which is a counterpart to Senate Bill 1083, is highly divisive, may violate human rights enshrined in the Constitution, and is ill-timed as the nation needs to unite against the Covid-19 pandemic.

As to easing restrictions in places of worship, the WHO left it to the government (in some areas, the local government unit) to decide how many would be allowed inside churches during mass.

The updated WHO guidelines on mass gatherings didn’t say anything new except to provide assessment tools, present the list of risk factors and stress the need for collaboration. It leaves to governments the decision on what mass gatherings to allow and the limits to be imposed.

This gray area is what will make implementation problematic when there are clashes in interpretation and there is police action involved. Local officials have the authority to limit or disallow mass gatherings and can claim they are allowed to do so based on the WHO guidelines.

The WHO needs to review its guidelines again as mass gatherings and protest actions are now happening in several countries.