Masks no longer mandatory Dr Agnes Mahomva

Bulawayo Bureau

The Government has said it is no longer mandatory to wear face masks indoors, but highly recommended, a pronouncement that has seen education authorities saying pupils must continue to wear them.

Last Friday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that Covid-19 was no longer a public health emergency of international concern.

However, WHO also urged nations to remain alert as the pandemic was not yet over.

In light of the development, Zimbabwe will maintain Covid-19 prevention measures that are under implementation.

National Covid-19 taskforce coordinator Dr Agnes Mahomva said to protect citizens from the pandemic it is still highly recommended for members of the public to mask up, especially in poorly ventilated areas.

“Cabinet specifically dropped mandatory wearing of face masks but specifically recommended that we must still wear face masks if we are in a place that is at high risk of spreading Covid-19. That is what Zimbabwe is doing and in line with the recommendations of WHO and in line with what we have learnt in the country,” said Dr Mahomva. 

“We must remain vigilant. Cabinet removed the mandatory aspect but strongly recommended that if you are at high risk, if you are in a crowded space, if you are in a poorly ventilated places, it recommends that you wear your masks in line with the new normal.”

She said the country has institutionalised some of the best practices that protected people from the pandemic.

Dr Mahomva said these include washing of hands with running water and soap all the time, wearing face masks in crowded places, poorly ventilated places and also sticking to Cabinet resolutions.

“WHO announced that Covid-19 is no longer a public emergency but if you go on the same statement, they go on to specifically to urge countries to remain vigilant as Covid-19 is not yet over. 

Based on that, nations should remain vigilant and being vigilant in line with what we have seen and based on our experiences is adopting a new normal. New normal means we are not going back where we were before Covid-19,” said Dr Mahomva. 

Some entities including Government offices, financial institutions, schools among other organisations still demand that people wear face masks. 

Dr Mahomva said some of the measures that institutions are still implementing speak to being vigilant and embracing the new normal.

She said Government will also continue to support schools to ensure that they remain safe especially going into winter, a period when there is a likely increase of respiratory diseases.

“A new normal means institutionalising those best practices that we have been doing and successes that we have recommended and making sure that we remain vigilant,” she said.

“Government continues to support schools to make sure that they have access to water, to make sure there is no crowding, they practice social distancing and those are the practices. And we know even before Covid-19 when you go into winter pay attention especially in places where someone has a common cold because you’ll never know what it is. That is the kind of thing that is the new normal. We are not going back where we were before Covid-19.”

Primary and Secondary Education communications and advocacy director Mr Taungana Ndoro said the ministry will maintain standard operating procedures (SOPs) introduced at the peak of Covid-19 including wearing of masks and social distancing.

Mr Ndoro said SOPs make schools safe. 

“They don’t protect our pupils from Covid 19 only but many other communicable diseases such as cholera, typhoid, flues and any other diseases,” said Mr Ndoro.

“They also help us in terms of health and hygiene, washing of hands, cleanliness, social distancing, it has taught us a lot and there is no way we are going to discard that. It is to our advantage whether there is an outbreak we will able to contain it because we have the SOPs. If it’s flue, it’s a bug it won’t spread because we have these standard operating procedures. So, this is why we will continue to maintain them.”

The education sector was one of the worst affected by Covid-19 following the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 which resulted in schools closing for prolonged periods.

Prominent Bulawayo doctor and lecturer Professor Solwayo Ngwenya said in view of the latest pronouncement, it is key that the public understand that WHO still regards Covid-19 as a public threat and the public should guard against complacency. 

“This statement from WHO must not distract us in Zimbabwe in general, and Africa in particular since the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic still remains as mentioned in that same statement. This is particularly important as pandemic history tells us that the severe danger lies in the end when there is widespread complacency,” said Prof Ngwenya.

He said it is more critical to be vigilant as the country is entering the cold winter season.

Prof Ngwenya said it will be critical for schools to continue masking up.

“It is particularly important in our setting during the cold season when viruses spread easily amongst close contact groups such as school children, that the wearing of face masks must be maintained. To which failure could lead to widespread mass infections that may cause serious problems for us as a country,” said Prof Ngwenya. 

“The message to the general public is that we have gotten this far by observing Covid 19 protocols, let us maintain the same so that together we can survive the pandemic. There may be very grave problems ahead during this winter.”

Legal expert and former Zimbabwe Lawyers Association president Mr Wellington Magaya said Government should improve communication regarding wearing of masks in public buildings.

He said the public can take legal recourse if institutions continue to demand that they wear masks in public buildings, although it will be costly than just buying a mask.

“The Government needs to communicate properly and effectively to everyone about the removal of mandatory wearing of face masks in public buildings. I don’t think the revision of the regulations was adequately communicated to everyone. This is the reason why some institutions are still insisting on the wearing of mask,” said Mr Magaya.

“That having been said no one can force or compel anyone to mask in a public building and what anyone who is affected by that can do is refuse to comply with that instruction or order because it is unlawful. But if the person controlling access to building refuses, the only remedy is going to court but that may not be practical because you can approach the court on an urgent basis after three to four days. Practically it may not be the best way to do it, it costs money if it is just about accessing a building. It will be cost effective to just buy a mask and take it off as soon as you leave.”

Regarding schools sticking to wearing of masks, the lawyer said it could be the best decision considering the country’s Covid-19 journey.

He however said parents and guardians who feel aggrieved over the issue can also approach the courts to seek recourse.

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