Mask mandate lifting in hospitals will put our collective health at risk

By Miranda Stewart 

On 19 April, the universal mask mandate in healthcare facilities in Ireland was brought to an end. It is now only mandatory in cases of known respiratory transmissible illness, specifically for that patient and those working with them. That will not do anything to prevent transmission in shared spaces or when COVID-19 has not yet been diagnosed. This will endanger people who may be already at their most vulnerable.

Covid continues to spread in Ireland, all the more so with the abandonment of testing and tracing efforts. As of 24 April, there were currently 281 confirmed cases in hospitals and 16 in intensive care. Cases have been rising for the past month. In Ireland, over a thousand deaths have been associated with acute hospital outbreaks so far, and 12,582 cases, according to the Health Protection Surveillance Centre.

Threat to health and safety 

Removing masks in healthcare facilities puts us all at risk from both higher community transmission and increased strain on the healthcare system. The INMO has said that that hospital overcrowding reached “record highs” in March. The INMO (Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation) has called for the mask mandate to remain. Without it, workers cannot do their jobs safely and protect their patients. Healthcare workers who are high-risk or close to someone high-risk will be particularly affected.

Studies have shown that universal masking, even when imperfectly followed, is significantly more effective than other approaches such as one-way masking or ventilation alone.

The lack of masking particularly endangers those already disproportionately harmed in a capitalist system. COVID-19 can have lasting consequences even for those without other health conditions. For many people, the chances of permanent damage, death, or worsening of other illnesses are much higher. And many at increased risk also have no choice but to enter healthcare settings more often. This policy forces people with illnesses and disabilities to choose between forgoing needed care and risking infection. 

Solidarity with those in harm 

Ending universal masking in healthcare settings treats those at high risk as disposable. It is part of the ableism inherent to (though not limited to) capitalism. We have a responsibility to both advocate and practice solidarity with those this policy will harm, and reject the politics of disposability that led to it. 

Healthcare workers and patients alike deserve better than this escalating abandonment during the ongoing pandemic. Those unions based in the health sector must demand that they have democratic control over all aspects of health and safety—the last three years have shown it cannot be left in the hands of this government or the bosses and profiteers. 

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