Mask rules are not meant to ‘criminalise’ the public

The regulation on mandatory mask-wearing was not created to punish the public, but to protect it.

At a briefing on Monday, members of the National Coronavirus Command Council — including Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Justice and Correctional Services Minister Ronald Lamola — emphasised that the rule relating to the compulsory wearing of cloth masks is not meant to “criminalise” detractors, but to enforce a new social norm.

Dlamini-Zuma said: “Our hope is that no one will ever be fined for not wearing a mask. Our hope is that no one will ever get a criminal record for not wearing a mask. Because everyone will wear a mask … We should not be worried too much about the fine. We should be worried about wearing the mask.”

Lamola agreed that wearing masks in public should be “normalised”. 

“It must be embarrassing to move around without a mask,” he said. “It must be cool to move with a mask. And it must be something which is becoming the new normal.” 

On Sunday night President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the tightening of restrictions as South Africa accelerates towards the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions included the immediate re-banning of alcohol sales and a national curfew between 9pm and 4am.

When Ramaphosa made the announcement, the national confirmed coronavirus caseload was at more than 276 000 cases, with 4 079 deaths. There are about 12 000 new infections in the country every day, the president noted. This translates to about 500 new cases every hour. 

According to Ramaphosa, some models project between 40 000 and 50 000 deaths before the end of this year.

On Monday, Lamola said the decision to make masks mandatory was not taken lightly. But, he explained, the regulation will empower members of the public — specifically business owners — to enforce mask-wearing. 

The duty to enforce mask-wearing still rests with the “compliance officers” of private and public buildings and transport. However, Lamola said, if public behaviour does not improve, the cabinet will consider imposing “the issue of criminality for individuals”.

“We were very reluctant to criminalise this issue. There have been instances where people have been irresponsible, by not wearing a mask when in public places, including in entering shops … It has made the lives of members of the public difficult, including law-enforcement officers,” Lamola said.

Before Ramaphosa’s announcement on Sunday, a number of videos surfaced on social media of people refusing to wear masks when entering shops and pharmacies. 

Global attitudes to mask-wearing

The phenomenon of people refusing to wear masks in public is not unique to South Africa. Similar videos showing people in the United States defying shop owners asking that they wear masks have also made the rounds online.

US President Donald Trump, has voiced his own defiance against public mask-wearing, a measure that has been recommended by the World Health Organisation to curb the spread of the virus. In April, Trump told reporters: “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it. Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.”

He also publicly mocked presidential hopeful Joe Biden for wearing a mask. On Saturday, however, Trump said he was never against masks and he has since been photographed wearing a mask. 

More than twenty US states now require people to wear face masks in public. But anti-mask activists in several states have organised protests against local regulations, complaining that the measures infringe on their individual freedom.

By Monday, the US had recorded 3 414 105 confirmed Covid-19 cases. More than 137 700 people in the country have died as a result of the virus.

A similar, anti-mask stance has been a theme in countries that have been hit hard by Covid-19, including the United Kingdom and Brazil. 

On Monday, Lamola said mandatory mask-wearing in South Africa is “in the spirit of we are all our brother’s and our sister’s keeper”.

 “We all have a responsibility to remind each other if we’re not wearing a mask,” he said.

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Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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