Aside from the obvious overcrowding in urban poor areas that prove social and physical distancing is only for the affluent, there is another common characteristic of living and working in the Philippines that makes us highly vulnerable to the dreaded coronavirus disease 2019.
Our national dependence on air conditioning, especially in the workplace and public spaces like malls, is one potential COVID-19 infection vector that needs to be discussed. By now we are already hyper-aware of the overstressed need for face masks and face shields, even when outdoors where COVID-19’s non-airborne particles are not as infectious; but it seems that nobody has focused on the risk of getting infected while indoors and what we can be doing to reduce that particular risk.
Let’s face it. A vast majority of COVID-19 transmission occurs indoors, mostly from the inhalation of particles that contain the coronavirus. The best way to prevent this transmission in an air conditioned workplace or enclosed public space is to keep infected people away, but in a country where testing is not widely available and an estimated 40 percent of cases are asymptomatic but infectious, that is something we are not capable of right now.
The danger with continuously recirculating indoor air that most air conditioning systems currently produce is if the stale/contaminated air is not expelled and fresh air is not brought in, the viral load inside those rooms and spaces will continuously increase if 1 infected individual is inside.
The safest indoor space is one that has constantly lots of outside air replacing the stale air inside. In other words, the safest indoor space during these times would be the open air spaces.
Unfortunately for Filipinos, most of the spaces we share other people with are air conditioned spaces and most of the air-conditioning units we use do not introduce fresh air into the rooms but continuously recirculate the same air over and over again. The only time fresh air enters the rooms are when doors or windows are opened.
Workplaces, banks, malls and almost everywhere we go when we leave the safety of our homes are air-conditioned and the only policy I have seen being implemented that is presented as a COVID-19 prevention measure increasing the room temperatures settings of the aircon units. However, if you come to think of it, that is a useless gesture because the 1-2 degree centigrade drop in aircon setting has not been proven to kill any viruses. 24 degrees C, or even 30 C settings on the aircon unit will not kill COVID-19 that needs a higher temperature to be destroyed so I cannot understand why we have been led to believe that a less uncomfortable aircon setting will make the room safer when it does absolutely nothing to endanger the lifespan of the virus.
Instead of lowering the temperature setting of aircon units, what we should be doing is introducing more air exchanges, which means letting as much fresh air into the room as frequently as possible. And since most window-type or split-type aircon units do not have this feature, we will have to manually open doors and windows every now and then to let fresh air flow through the rooms, hopefully bringing the stale/infected air out. It’s not a foolproof plan, but coupled with regular disinfection procedures, it is better than pinning all your hopes on setting the thermostat to 24 or 26 degrees instead of the usual 16-18 degrees Celsius.
Simply put, the more fresh, outside air inside a building, the better. The more the people in the space, the more frequent the air should be replaced because fresh air dilutes any contaminant in the room. Many spaces in the Philippines do not introduce fresh air unless the door is opened. In our hot climate, we immediately feel it when a door is opened for too long because the air conditioned room temperature immediately drops but during these times, it is also a sign that the air in the room is being refreshed.
Both the World Health Organization and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that poor ventilation increases the risk of transmitting the coronavirus. Wearing a mask or even a face shield might help, but for those spending lots of time with strangers in air-conditioned spaces indoors, a better defense against coronavirus is to open the doors and windows every now and then.
For those who are still holding face to face meetings, choose the non-aircon space. When it comes to public transportation, jeepneys may make better sense than aircon buses but it would seem that our government has a different agenda as far as the future of public transportation is concerned. Instead of setting your workplace room temperature to 26, set it to 20 but open the doors for a few minutes every hour or two. Building managers in charge of centralized air-conditioning will have to adjust their settings to allow more fresh air in. It will require more energy and more expensive to run, but at least the occupants will have an additional safety measure against the dreaded COVID-19.
In summary, if you cannot stay at home, try to go to public place that is not air-conditioned. If it is air-conditioned, don’t stay too long. If you are staying long and you can help it, facilitate air exchanges so the stale air goes out and fresh outside air comes in.*