Comment: People choosing to keep masks on while outdoors in S'pore is a good sign

'Personal responsibility' in action.

Nigel Chua | April 02, 2022, 10:10 AM

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If you've left your house in the last few days, you probably noticed that not many people are removing their masks, despite mask-wearing being optional outdoors.

Mask-wearing outdoors is one of the many areas where restrictions have just been relaxed, as part of a "decisive" move towards living with Covid-19, and in fulfilment of the vision set out by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in one of his televised speeches on Covid-19, in May 2021.

Flashback: May 2021

If May 2021 rings a bell for you, you might recall it as the month where Singapore's seemingly steady progress toward normalcy since 2020's Circuit Breaker was interrupted by Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) from May 16, 2021.

In that speech about two weeks later, PM Lee, watched by several hundred thousand people, painted a morale-boosting picture of a future new normal where "Covid-19 will not dominate our lives."

In many ways, we are living that future now.

Many prefer to keep masks on at all times

Yet, most people seem to be keeping their masks on even in wide-open spaces, sometimes even while exercising.

This matches the somewhat surprising results of informal polls: That the overwhelming majority prefer to keep their masks on "Most of the time" or "Always".

However, there wasn't quite as much hesitation when previous restrictions were relaxed.

It didn't take long for dining in to resume, after the second period of Heightened Alert ended in Aug. last year. Some diners flocked to dine in at F&B places at the first moment possible — the stroke of midnight on Aug. 10.

This year, we readily embraced the relaxation of other restrictions, scrambling for first dibs at the chance to charcoal-roast our own chicken wings at newly-reopened, fully-booked barbecue pits.

What is behind Singaporeans' seeming skittishness over going maskless outdoors?

And how might this reluctance to once again show our faces to the sun actually be a good thing?

Weigh your options, make your choices

There are many possible reasons why people, having weighed their options, decided they would keep their masks on.

Some told Mothership that they were doing so out of an abundance of caution, for instance.

Others might simply find it more convenient to stay masked all the time, so they don't have to put the masks back on when returning indoors.

Might most people simply be too paiseh to be the first ones seen flaunting this newfound freedom, since the majority are opting to stay masked?

Or, could it be that Singaporeans have cultivated a new habit (like in Taiwan and Japan, where mask-wearing was common even before Covid-19), after two years of mask-wearing, and multiple distributions of both reusable and disposable masks?

Regardless of the reasons, each person deciding how they want to safeguard themselves in the low-risk setting of an outdoor area can only be a good thing for Singapore as we move toward living with Covid-19.

It remains to be seen whether more people will start to take their masks off in outdoor areas, especially if there is an uptick in case numbers in the next few weeks — or, touch wood, a new variant.

But the fact is that they now have a choice they didn't have before.

"Personal responsibility" playing a bigger role

Singaporeans' newfound freedom to unmask outdoors is the latest step in a series of Covid-19 management changes that place more emphasis on personal responsibility, and less on government mandate.

In early 2020, confirmed cases were whisked off in special ambulances and isolated in special wards, while close contacts and overseas arrivals were given strict orders to isolate themselves.

Today, however, the vast majority of people with Covid-19 recover at home, with many excluded from the daily tally of cases as they are able to self-isolate.

Now, even the closest contacts of Covid-19 cases — such as partners and household members — are free to carry out daily activities, even with a Covid-19 case in their house, and without a negative Covid-19 test result.

On that note, contact tracing has also been stepped down significantly, with the strict quarantine orders eventually replaced by the Health Risk Notice, which is an advisory to take precautions, no longer an order to comply.

Yes, not everyone can be trusted to exercise personal (and social) responsibility.

But the granting of some additional responsibility to a population that has mostly been policed into strict compliance with the law should surely be welcomed.

When self-isolation was first announced, the health ministry's Director of Medical Services Kenneth Mak said it was to give members of the public "empowerment to be able to take charge of your health".

But self-isolation was — thankfully — not something everyone got to experience first-hand.

Going mask-free outdoors, however, is a choice available to all, even if few choose it.

Risk and reward

"What about the risk?", you might ask.

Objectively speaking, the freedom to remove one's mask while outdoors does increase the risk that one could infect or be infected.

Naturally, some will be less comfortable with outdoor masklessness — but some will be more comfortable.

A man who preferred to have his mask removed while outdoors succinctly told Mothership: "I f*ck it already."

You might be immediately recoiling at how "irresponsible" that comment sounds — perhaps because your views on outdoor mask-wearing are at odds with his.

Going maskless immediately visible, other riskier behaviour less visible

But, consider that there could be others who keep their masks on at all times in public while engaging in way more risky, and less visible behaviour.

Sharing drinks and food with multiple sets of 10 visitors in a residential unit comes to mind — totally legal, by the way, as long as they take turns.

In other words, we need to have a sense of proportion about what we observe.

The "personal" aspect of "personal responsibility" means that we each have to decide our own course based on our own risk appetite, because the government has stepped back and isn't going to do it for us anymore (at least in this area).

Therefore, if the prospect of meeting unmasked people outdoors bothers you, keep your own mask on, keep your distance, and find alternate routes and routines that allow you to stay indoors more.

But also realise that all these steps will achieve very little when stacked against the relatively greater danger from activities like dining in, which the authorities rightly deem "higher risk".

Personal responsibility vs SDAs

While the past two years saw some of the strictest impositions on the lives of people in Singapore, we have come a long way from those days.

With more aspects of Covid-19 management left to individuals, we can expect less external "supervision".

With that, the number of safe distancing ambassadors (SDAs) in Singapore is expected to be scaled down, as more restrictions are eased and if Singaporeans take on more "social and personal responsibility".

SDAs, and their sometimes ever-present patrolling of popular spots, have no doubt played a role in keeping Singapore safe.

But moves like allowing people in Singapore to go without masks when outdoors will do more to encourage personal responsibility than 1,000 SDAs ever could.

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Top photo by Andrew Koay

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