Editorial: Masks of contention

THE recent unmasking of the authorities’ lack of readiness to respond to public health emergencies came after the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) announced it will impose a penalty of P5,000 on those caught violating the memorandum circular issued on Jan. 31, 2020, which requires public utility vehicle (PUV) drivers to use a mask.

SunStar Cebu’s Jolissa C. Taboada reported on Feb. 2 that a PUV driver found the penalty unreasonable although the respondent said he will comply with the requirement.

The memorandum, which also requires PUV operators to put hand sanitizers for passengers’ use, was issued after a tourist traveling in the country was found to be infected with the 2019 novel coronavirus acute respiratory disease (2019-nCoV-ARD).

What does the LTFRB aim to achieve through that memorandum? If it is to involve all commuting stakeholders—32,000 PUV drivers, conductors and passengers daily using the roads of Central Visayas, with 12,000 based in Cebu—in being responsible for their personal health as well as that of others, the LTFRB should shift strategies and focus from the punitive to the supportive.

As early as Jan. 12, when the Taal Volcano in Batangas erupted, citizens as far as Quezon City drove up the demand in Metro Manila for face masks as protection from the resulting ashfall. The scarcity of the commodity and the steep prices demanded by some sellers pushed many residents to extend their search for face masks outside of Metro Manila.

After last week’s confirmation of the country’s first case of the 2019-nCoV-ARD—a tourist who arrived in Manila from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the outbreak—pharmacies in Cebu City were reported as running out of masks.

The pharmacy of a private hospital in Cebu City is prioritizing in-patients and medical staff since the administration is uncertain when they can restock on the masks. Dialysis patients, who are out-patients but are among the most vulnerable to respiratory ailments, are excluded from those prioritized to purchase masks in this hospital.

Thus, instead of penalizing a public that needs and wants to purchase but has limited or no access to face masks, the authorities should instead coordinate and decisively address the shortage and overpricing of face masks.

The Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) price monitoring and investigation of alleged overpricing hardly stir confidence among citizens who have seen how the agency was ineffectual in regulating to ensure that the market made masks available at the suggested retail price (SRP) after the Taal Volcano eruption early last month.

Citizens’ panicked responses to the 2019-nCoV-ARD, such as hoarding and purchase of masks despite exorbitant prices, add to the problem. The Department of Health (DOH) must step up its campaign to educate the public on realistic measures to safeguard health.

There is a need to emphasize that masks protect one’s health if complemented by proper hygiene, such as correct and regular handwashing. The N95 mask, which filters at least 95 percent of airborne particulates, is required for health workers who are at the frontlines.

DOH 7 Director Jaime Bernadas’s advice that a surgical face mask is effective only for eight hours would be more useful with suggestions for improvising a mask or resorting to affordable alternatives.

For PUV drivers and conductors who are not just on the road for more than eight hours but also need to bark to attract passengers or converse with passengers during the trip, an improvised, washable mask may be more practical than a disposable one.

If implemented, the plans of the Cebu City Government and Barangay Mambaling to use its disaster trust funds to purchase masks to be distributed for free to citizens, particularly the elderly, young and sick, meet the public’s expectations of government response to emergencies: quick response.