Plastic fantastic

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Aside from the mask-wearing and physical distancing rules and reminders for the allegedly “pasaway” Filipinos who are supposed to be the reason why the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak is still rampaging uncontrollably in the Philippines, the next-most (in) visible rule of our state of quarantine is our national obsession with plastic.

Plastic sheets and barriers have suddenly invaded our world. Justifiably or not, our government that believes its people are unable to practice physical distancing despite the facts showing otherwise has imposed as much plastic barriers as it can upon our communities.

Everything that is in more or less a public space must have the plastic barriers that are supposed to be our secret weapon in keeping us safe from each other and the virus.

The people in charge may have gone overboard in plasticizing our world but when making up as many rules to keep us busy seems to be the only thing they can do to give the impression that they are in control right now, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Plastic is ok as a third, fourth, or last line of defense against a virus like COVID-19, but if it is to be effective, there has to be a more effective first and second line of defense in place. The problem with the Philippines is that our government officials seem to be relying on the backlines of defense instead of propping up the frontlines.

What are the first lines of defense against COVID-19, pray tell? Well those would be targeted mass testing and contact tracing. However since we have utterly failed at establishing those particular lines of defense, our government comforts us with plastic rules left and right.

How much plastic do we have to deal with until the silver bullet vaccine that our great leader is counting on can come to save us? Let us start from our faces, the exit point of COVID-19 for infected individuals and the entry point for potential victims. Right now, mask wearing is mandatory and soon, it looks like so will plastic face shields. That obviously isn’t enough because if you go to a store, bank or take public transportation, plastic barriers are required. Then, if you ride pillion on a motorcycle, even if the driver has a full face helmet and mask, another silly plastic barrier is required. If the number of COVID-19 cases doesn’t flatten, we may soon have to wrap ourselves in plastic sheeting every time we go out.

All these plastic rules are supposed to keep us safe from COVID-19 when in public spaces but if you come to really think of it, how effective is all this plastic?

Assuming that an infected person is on the loose, will a plastic barrier stop the virus from spreading? One thing is certain, if the virus had been exhaled, and was not stopped by either the personal mask or face shield, there is a chance it might be stopped or stick to the plastic. If it doesn’t stick, thereby contaminating the surface, the virus should hit the plastic and fall gently to the surface because it is not yet an airborne particle.

Now if it does stick to the plastic or fall to the surface at the bottom of the plastic barrier, how often are those surfaces disinfected? Can you imagine the viral load of a jeepney plastic barrier at the end of the day? Do these “protective” surfaces undergo proper disinfection regularly? Is this dependence on plastic making us safer or are we unnecessarily creating an additional transmission vector?

As for the subject of motorcycle pillion rider plastic barriers, those monstrosities are absolutely useless. First and foremost, that additional barrier makes pillion riding more unsafe. Secondly, according to IATF rules, the motorcycle driver and passenger are already supposed to be married, with matching documentary evidence whenever they travel. These people, at the very least, share the same bed. Most of them suck each other faces regularly. Based on that absurd rule alone, requiring a plastic barrier while riding a motorcycle is useless. Furthermore, the motorcycle driver and passenger is already supposed to wear a helmet, most probably with face mask and visor.
Even if there is almost no way that enough viral load can be transmitted to the pillion rider, especially since a motorcycle is used in open air, plastic barriers are mandatory for pillion riders in many parts of the country. Whoever is pushing for this to be mandatory is just adding an unnecessary expense, making loads of dough selling the barriers, or giving potential reason for kotong cops to prey on the already suffering and miserable public.

Like most of our military-inspired quarantine rules, rules on plastic sheets and barriers exist to make the public feel a little bit safer by adding extra inconvenience.

If everyone just wore a mask (which most Filipinos actually do, despite being labeled by their own government as the ones responsible for this godawful mess we are in,) barriers wouldn’t be necessary. We comply with these plastic rules because they say it is helpful and we do it to make ourselves feel better and protected during a severe public health crisis where statistics show that our government has failed to do its job properly. We will continue to do it until this COVID-19 mess is over because we have been convinced that it is an effective measure by the ex-military men leading the nation’s fight against COVID. In a land where brash posturing is the gold standard for performance and competence, optics will always win over science and logic.

At the end of the day, despite being arguably one of the most plastic-sheeted countries in the planet, the Philippines has still become the record holder most number of COVID-19 cases in our region. In the span of one month, we have not only beaten UP, we have even beaten Indonesia. That should be enough reason to make our leaders rethink ineffective policies and strategies but unfortunately for us, critical thinking has apparently been outlawed.

Our obsession with plastic wouldn’t be so cringe-worthy had our COVID-19 curve had been flattened. But it is fattening and we are still doubling down on plastic.

What is truly sad is that at this point, the citizenry and the private sector has no choice but to double down on plastic because that is the only defense we can muster. When there is still no discernable first and second line of defense after 3 months of war and instead of fighting our government has chosen to tap out and instead waiting for the final line of defense that is the promise of a vaccine, you have no other choice but to defend yourself and your loved ones as much as you can. If plastic is the only defense available, so be it.*

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