Hygiene theater

By: Michael L. Tan - @inquirerdotnet - Inquirer.net | August 12,2020 - 09:00 AM

I’ve been sprayed with Lysol and doused with colloidal silver solution, both times by well-meaning friends explaining that their ablutions were done to protect me, and themselves, from the coronavirus.

Last July 27, The Atlantic, an American magazine, published an article by Derek Thompson titled “Hygiene Theater is a Huge Waste of Time.” Consider my column today to be a Philippine version.

Hygiene theater, so-called because it’s really performed for public consumption to give the impression you’re doing something, is not just a waste of time but also of money, and, worse, can injure or even kill people.

How did we get to these nonsensical theatrics? It all started early in the pandemic when research articles came out saying the virus could be found on surfaces, surviving for as long as several days. But last month an article appeared in The Lancet, with a title that says it all: “Exaggerated risk of transmission of COVID-19 by fomites.” The author, Emanuel Goldman, a professor of microbiology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics at the medical school of Rutgers University, points out that the studies on COVID-19 transmission through fomites “has been assumed on the basis of studies that have little resemblance to real-life scenarios.”

In layman’s terms, Goldman told The Atlantic “as many as 100 people would need to sneeze on the same area of a table to mimic some of their experimental conditions.”

In May, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared categorically that COVID-19 spreads mainly through close contact of people while talking or sneezing, and that touching a surface “isn’t thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”

But by then people’s fears had extended from all kinds of hard surfaces to soft materials, including clothes and footwear, spinning off all kinds of preventive measures. President Trump even suggested taking disinfectants internally, and it would not have been surprising if people did follow his advice.

Colloidal silver was described also by The Atlantic as “snake oil,” with worries because it is also often taken internally.

Early during the pandemic, many local governments were spraying vehicles at checkpoints, aiming at the tires. The Department of Health said this was not needed, but I remember a local government official who was furious with the DOH order and defiantly declared he would continue.

Late in March, the government initiated, nationwide, the spraying of roads with disinfectant. The DOH issued an advisory shortly after, quoting the World Health Organization to say all that was not necessary and that we needed to be more careful because disinfectants can harm people. It was only late in April that the Department of the Interior and Local Government ordered a stop to the spraying and misting, but it seems the spraying has continued, including the use of disinfection tents. In June, Philippine National Police Capt. Casey Gutierrez, a physician, died after inhaling the disinfectant used in a misting tent. Physicians advised Metro Manila officials last Friday to terminate these misting activities.

Then you have all these foot baths. Theater again. Again, they can actually be dangerous. Two Sundays ago, I had to go to Quezon Hall in UP Diliman to deliver the commencement speech (which was then broadcast by Facebook). I nearly didn’t get to deliver the speech because I slipped on the required footbath and twisted my back to avoid falling. The footbath contained too much soap, or whatever the disinfectant was.

Still another hygiene theater performance featured on the front page of a daily newspaper: teachers disinfecting the plastic wrappers for teaching modules.

Sigh. Can’t people see why all that is useless? Even if the materials had the coronavirus and you were able to kill it, the disinfectant is not going to keep the materials sterile for more than a few hours. And we go back to the point of the virus not being in large enough numbers to cause an infection.

The greatest danger of hygiene theater is that we get a false sense of security, forgetting that masks, handwashing, and physical distancing are the proven ways to prevent infection. If you want to disinfect, then handwash with soap and water for at least 20 seconds (singing “Happy Birthday” twice). Also, heed the warning not to touch your face with your hands, unless you’ve done the handwashing or used sanitizers. That, plus physical distancing, which means avoiding crowds and indoor environments with poor air circulation.

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