Changing environment

COVID-19 has been bringing suffering and death to the entire world for over a year now. Many of us, as a result, have gone through some form of lockdown or quarantine; have lost an acquaintance, a friend or a family member to the virus; or have gotten sick ourselves from COVID itself or the hardships it has brought on. All of us have been affected by it, one way or the other.

But our COVID situation has had some positive attributes as well. COVID has forced us to rethink our priorities and put more focus and emphasis now on healthcare and workplace safety. We have also seen the greater acceptance of remote work or work-from-home arrangements, and the growth of the community of cyclists and people seeking the comfort of wide, open spaces.

Just recently, as I went around Salcedo Village in Makati City, I was pleasantly surprised to see bicycle racks at street corners, with signs indicating that bicycle parking is for free, although it is “park at your own risk.” Bicycle owners are also reminded to “lock it or lose it.” And, more important, the parking slots cannot be used by “electric bikes or motorized vehicles.”

Kudos to the city government of Makati, the Makati Commercial Estates Association (MACEA), as well as to whoever else may have been involved in the putting up the bicycle parking slots. This is a good way of encouraging more people to pedal their way around, pursuant to the new law that requires the establishment of safe bicycle paths all over the country.

All over the village, signs were also put up to remind all motorists that it is illegal to wait or park at clearly marked red zones. Violators risk a fine of P3,000. Signs were also put up to remind all motorists not to “counterflow,” with violators subject to a fine of P2,000. While the signs are gentle reminders, the expensive fines are not. I just hope the restrictions are strictly implemented.

What is more encouraging is the fact that both “no illegal parking/waiting” and “no traffic counterflow” signs indicate that the restrictions — as set by the Makati City traffic code way back in 2003 — apply to cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and scooters, among others. In short, it applies to all forms of transportation, including personal mobility devices. Again, I hope the restrictions are strictly implemented and that violators are fined.

But, beyond traffic ordinances, another step in the right direction by Makati, MACEA, and perhaps the Makati Parking Authority is putting up “no smoking” and “no vaping” signs on sidewalks in the city. This, I believe, is an initiative that deserves recognition and support. Other than its benefits to public health, it is also an anti-littering initiative.

With smoking banned indoors and other enclosed public places, many smokers have taken to the streets to indulge in their vice and have literally made sidewalks their ashtrays. Many workers take their breaks outside their buildings just so they can smoke, and this has made the central business district dirtier. Many smokers congregate particularly outside convenience stores.

Prohibiting smoking and vaping on sidewalks can help create a cleaner and healthier city. More than that, it helps ensure public safety given the continuing threat posed by COVID-19. Second-hand smoke from smokers and vapers are scientifically known to transmit the coronavirus to non-smokers. It is bad enough that cigarette smoke is annoying, but now it has also become even deadlier.

I used to be smoker, as many journalists of my generation were. But I quit when I was 38, and have been smoke-free since. I now consider smoking — even vaping — as a public health hazard. While I respect personal freedom and people’s right to choose, I also believe that we should strictly follow new restrictions on smoking particularly in public places.

And given the heightened threat of COVID-19, smoking and vaping should be banned in all public places, including outdoors. For one, smokers and vapers remove their masks when they smoke or vape. Present restrictions indicate that people should always wear masks — and face shields — when outside their homes.

Second, second-hand smoke from cigarettes as well as e-cigarettes are known to possibly transmit the novel coronavirus farther than usual. It is bad enough that smokers are already killing themselves and those around them with their smoke. But COVID-19 has made cigarette smoke even worse. Virus transmission is also possible with e-cigarette vapor.

As noted by Loren Wold, PhD, an expert in airborne particulate matter, in a report by Healthline, “When a vaping cloud is exhaled, it contains an enormous amount of particles… What we don’t know is how far the particles can go. We know that the virus can attach to particles and can travel three, four, or five times farther than they would by simply being in the air.”

Just normal breathing itself can already spread the disease, Healthline noted, which is why face masks are recommended to keep virus particles from spreading freely through the air. Smokers often exhale more forcefully, meaning that the particles they push out of their lungs can travel even farther, noted Wold, who is director of Biomedical Research in the College of Nursing, and an associate professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine at The Ohio State University.

Added Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, “The cloud [from the exhaled smoke or vapor] gives you a very good idea of how far you need to stay away from it.” As for cigarette smoke, Healthline reported, according to Dr. Horovitz, if you can smell it, you are probably too close.

Healthline also noted that studies by the National Institutes of Health indicate that second-hand smoke can stay in the air for several hours and travel up to 20 feet. And here we are thinking that no more than 15 minutes in an enclosed space, and distance of at least six feet from one another, would be enough. Banning smoking and vaping in any public space, including sidewalks, is a step in the right direction.


Marvin Tort is a former managing editor of BusinessWorld, and a former chairman of the Philippine Press Council

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