NEW DELHI: Even though some states have decided to stop penalising people for not wearing masks as COVID-19 cases continue to drop, healthcare experts are of the opinon that it is too early to completely do away with the restriction.
They have advised people to voluntarily mask up in order to also stay protected from infections such as influenza and swine-flu, apart from coronavirus.
The Maharashtra and Delhi governments recently decided to ease the restriction on the compulsory wearing of face masks in public, a norm that was in place for two years and its violation attracted a fine of Rs 2,000.
Reacting to the development, renowned virologist T Jacob John said since the pandemic is "over" in India, the use of mask is no longer needed to reduce the SARS-CoV-2 transmission. The mask mandate has lived its time and there is no longer justification for its continuation as "mandate".
But it is a good idea to promote the voluntary wearing of masks in public places to reduce inhalation of dust and other respiratory transmitted agents, including TB bacilli, flu virus, other respiratory viruses like syncytial virus, adenovirus, common cold viruses etc, he said.
"It is a habit that will reduce diseases. Currently, we see kidney transplant patients wearing masks; everyone will benefit -- in buses, trains, aeroplanes etc," John, the former director of the Indian Council for Medical Research's Centre of Advanced Research in Virology, told PTI.
"My personal opinion is that there ought to be active promotion of mask-wearing in all hospital premises, in outpatient clinics and all queues and waiting areas. There I am not averse to even a mandate. For staff and patients, relatives, visitors etc," John added.
Dr Ravi Shekhar Jha, Additional Director and Head of the Department - Pulmonology, Fortis Escorts Hospital, Faridabad, said mask should continue to be mandatory and it is premature to give up this habit completely.
"The disastrous second wave, that took many young lives across the world, was something that the modern world had not seen before. People had become a little complacent after the first wave and that probably lead to an unchecked rise in fatal cases. Though it is true that majority of susceptible Indians are vaccinated, what we must keep in mind is that vaccine doesn't protect us against infection. Even if the infection is not fatal, it keeps you weak for many months," he said.
"We all know about the long COVID. Therefore, it is best to not get infected. So far, science has proved that masks are the only major contributors to preventing infection," Jha told PTI.
Another important consideration here is that though COVID-19 has probably weakened, the country saw a reduction in the number of swine flu cases due to masks and sanitation practices. "Swine flu is more fatal than Covid and the combination called flurona can also be prevented by this. Therefore, in my opinion, masks must not be taken out of fashion...too early," he noted.
Dr Akshay Budhraja, senior pulmonologist, Aakash Healthcare Super Speciality Hospital, said it is time to stop swinging between restriction and normalcy. "We must learn to live with coronavirus like the same way we live with other viruses such as influenza and adenovirus among others. Masks should not be mandatory for the general population, but recommended for those who are sick or who have any kind of immunosuppressive illness, visiting crowded closed places with poor ventilation or when visiting a healthcare facility like hospitals or clinics," he said.
"At the same time, we need to stay cautious and follow the latest recommendations which may change from time to time in the coming months, as per the statistics. Now that everyone is aware enough on when to wear a mask, we must take responsibility ourselves in coming times," he said.
Dr Arunesh Kumar, HOD & Senior Consultant, Pulmonology, Paras Hospitals, Gurugram, said there has been a rise in COVID-19 cases in west as well as in China.
"Masking is the second-most effective intervention after vaccination when it comes to preventing new COVID infection. We are still not there with our double vaccine recipient numbers where herd immunity will be attained. New infections invite virus mutation. With a population as large as ours, it may prove a costly move as people will definitely find a reason not to put a mask on as a major deterrent has been removed," he said.
Advocating for unlocking but not unmasking, Kumar said the mask has also proved useful in preventing other infections like tuberculosis as well as allergic problems from dust and pollen, "which is a big problem in Delhi-National Capital Region".
"I urge people to consider masking up on a voluntary basis when out and about to help the country fight COVID infection effectively," he added.