It is difficult for the average citizen to decipher the evolving and sometimes conflicting guidelines on the wearing of face masks. That much is clear from the outcries on social media and the contentious debate that persists over this public health measure.
The unfamiliar terrain of COVID-19 continues to be a steep learning curve made more difficult with the recent upsurge in confirmed cases and, of late, increases in fatalities.
This week, to further complicate matters, Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi has failed to bring any clarity with his Independence Day media briefing, or his interview on CNC3’s The Morning Brew yesterday.
If anything, he has achieved quite the opposite, as there is now much more confusion and outrage over the newly-minted face mask law which seems unnecessarily punitive to children and their parents or guardians.
It doesn’t sit well with most people that a child over the age of eight can be charged $1,000 for being in public without a face mask under the Public Health Ordinance that came into effect on Monday.
Mr Al-Rawi stirred up that controversy a bit more with his staunch defence of Regulations 6 and 7 of the Ordinance, which, as he explained, means that a “child is on his or her own without a mask … your child can be fined via the fixed penalty notice position.”
To be fair, since moral suasion did not work in encouraging use of face masks, the AG and his Cabinet colleagues had very few options left for enforcing public health measures.
Laws can be difficult to enforce universally and equitably, particularly since mandatory masking is still such a new and contentious idea. That was borne out in the tone of the recent debate in the two houses of Parliament before this new law was passed.
T&T is not unique in that regard. There is no part of the world where a clear precedent or practical approach has been found for keeping COVID-19 at bay.
However, given the urgent need to enforce widespread mask use to slow this raging health crisis, ways must be found to get past lingering public resistance.
Mandates may be helpful but not entirely sufficient. Apart from sparking familiar and often acrimonious debate about the extent to which parents should be liable for their child’s action, little has been done to raise the level of awareness and bring about understanding and compliance.
A question still to be answered is how to deal with children who can’t weigh the risk of COVID and may not understand the significance of wearing masks. Even for adults, mandatory mask-wearing is still a new and contentious idea.
In the absence of consistent public health education and effective messaging about the use of face masks, it will be difficult to bring about the change in behaviour needed to flatten the COVID curve.
Threats of punishment, particularly when directed at children, do not fit in with the message that should be sent about working together to defeat a common enemy.