EXPLAINER: They disagree on usefulness of air purifiers. But what brings public noise is Capitol's mandate. If optional, furor will be less.

·5 min read

THE debate in public forums about necklace air purifiers rages less on the merit of the device as deterrent to Covid-19 infection than on the mandate for its use.

It is the August 13 memorandum of Cebu Governor Gwen Garcia that has brought the noise, mostly hostile and at times mean reaction from some sectors.

The unnumbered memo -- addressed to the police, highway patrol group, and operators of PUVs (public utility vehicles) and operators of premium taxes -- provides that all drivers and conductors of PUVs be required "to wear personal purifiers at all times during their trip" within the province. The order was to take effect August 16 but the starting day has since been moved to August 25.

Apparently, it is the mandate/command/order from authority that's generating heat from the public. Change it to an option on the same level as recommendation for boosting individuals' immune system or undergoing "tuob" or steam procedure and people may not mind as much as it does now.

HOW WILL IT BE RESOLVED? On Tuesday, August 17, Governor Garcia said she would keep the mandatory use of air purifiers despite adverse reaction. How would that square with the absence of a provision among the public health protocols by DOH or the national task force IATF or a directive from LTO, the land transportation office?

And unlike previous incidents that entangled Capitol policy against national guidelines, when the LGU relaxed the rule, this is now a case of the local government tightening it. The air purifier is more restriction, not less.

But then so was Lapu-Lapu City Mayor Junard Chan's threat of banning non-vaccinated persons from public markets and shops. Mayor Ahong got a warning from Malacanang for it.

CORE OF OPPOSITION: COST. Adverse comments from individuals and public-interest groups focus on the financial hardship it will cause on drivers and conductors and, by extension, the PUV operators and the public.

Reactions such as these: "How anti-poor can Cebu get? Even drivers and conductors? With what money?" "They barely have enough take-home earnings now." "Transport workers are struggling to make ends meet." "Look for other less expensive ways." "Focus on an expedited and equitable vaccine rollout instead."

Governor Garcia, battling on the issue Monday, August 16, cited her rule for opening of windows in vehicles but not on the expense of securing the purifier. No mention of how much it costs or the kind of purifier required. She said though that some operators will buy the device and their drivers and conductors will pay in installment.

And the province will give one month's supply of vitamins to each driver and each conductor working in the province. Not the purifiers, as some internet comments suggest.

ARGUMENT FOR, AGAINST PURIFIER. The governor lays down the argument for air purifier, thus:

[1] It's additional protection, one more layer of the shield against virus infection and not a replacement of IATF-imposed health protocols.

[2] The methods pushed by the national government -- mask, distancing, hand-washing and the like -- apparently have not worked as well as desired. Why not seek other measures, "on top of or besides" existing rules?

On the other side, main opposition to the air purifier, it would seem, is the additional burden on a struggling transport industry and its workers.

The expense looks large and oppressive when they consider that the efficacy of the purifier has been questioned for some time now, by the national government among others.

In 2020, the Department of Health officially ruled that it was not recommending the air purifier "due to lack of evidence of efficacy." Last February, Philippines Covid-19 Living Clinical Practice Guidelines Group said "no direct evidence was found assessing the effectiveness of ionizing air filters in reducing infections..."

A side argument, actually a kink on procedure, is this: What kind of brand will drivers and conductors buy? If no brand is recommended, what are the basic qualities the wearable air purifier must have? Most likely, just for compliance, they'll secure the cheap kind with little or no benefit on themselves or passengers.

PHILSTAR STORY LAST OCTOBER. On October 30, 2020, DOH in an official statement said it is "NOT ENDORSING necklace air purifiers that claim to kill bacteria or viruses or protect from Covid-19. While these devices do not pose any harm, the DOH does not recommend using these devices due to lack of evidence of efficacy. It also made clear that the wearing of the purifier DOES NOT replace the need to practice minimum health standards. It further warned the public to follow only "accurate health advice and guidance" from DOH, World Health Organization and "other reputable health institutions."

The 2020 DOH statement was prompted by a Philstar story on that same day, headlined, "DOH OK's use of necklace air purifier."

That kind of headline was used by Governor Gwen to foil an August 17, 2021 headline in a local paper, which says "DOH reiterates stand against wearable air purifiers of purifier."

DOH CLARIFICATION. How could DOH be "OK" with the air purifier in October 2020 and "against" it now? Have things changed?

First, DOH had corrected or clarified that 2020 Philstar headline. Return to its October 30, 2020 official statement, issued on the same day the story was published. Second, DOH, in the August 16 press briefing by Health Undersecretary Maria Rosario Vergeire said it had long warned there's no evidence of the purifier's efficacy although it would cause no harm -- except perhaps "a false sense of security."

Again, is DOH against the air purifier? DOH said it had warned about its usefulness but at the same DOH admitted it is harmless.

BUT DUTERTE WEARS IT. So do a number of senators, including Bong Go, whose photos with the necklace purifier were among the batch of printed-out material Governor Gwen presented.

They may be taken as personal statement or endorsement. But no senator has yet recommended it in a proposed bill or a letter to IATF. President Rodrigo Duterte only has to whisper to the task force and it lands in an IATF resolution.

Jessie Bacon III, a Manila-based journalist from Cebu, wonders if the debate is worth the time and energy, given the worse problems the country is facing. Would we rather have our mayors and governors accept each government edict with no question asked? That would be speedier and might cause no harm as long as it is not protracted and does not disrupt ongoing programs.

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