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Allar Jõks: Government communication on masks controversial and confusing

Former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks.
Former Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

Former justice chancellor Allar Jõks criticized controversial and ambivalent messages from the government over whether wearing a mask is mandatory, recommended or a guideline starting next week. Making mask-wearing mandatory would require amending the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act post haste, Jõks finds.

The government sent three different messages during press conferences and interviews on Tuesday, suggesting that masks must be worn (Prime Minister Jüri Ratas), that wearing a mask is recommended (Director General of the Health Board Üllar Lanno) and finally Minister of Social Affairs Tanel Kiik saying that these are just guidelines. What is your opinion of such messages?

It is the worst possible option from a legal standpoint. Because controversial and ambivalent government communication when it comes to wearing masks in no way helps people understand what they need to do, what they should do and what they mustn't do.

It was difficult to keep track of the meaning of these words yesterday. Making something mandatory is clear. While an obligation to wear a mask needs to be fixed in legislation. Masks coming recommended or strongly recommended is also understandable and what I consider to be the best option. But then we were also told that wearing a mask is a guideline.

The more different expressions are introduced to the discussion, the worse the situation becomes. Because what are guidelines? Synonyms of the word include recommendations, instructions or regulations. This means that a person cannot understand clearly what is expected of them.

What should people do? Wear a mask just in case in fear of being fined?

The Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act through which such an obligation could be introduced currently includes no legal norms to allow the Health Board or government to make wearing personal protective devices mandatory in public spaces. However, even if it the law did prescribe the obligation, several important matters would need to be solved first.

Firstly, as concerns the availability of masks. I am referring to less fortunate people. Several studies suggest that masks are among the most expensive in Europe in Estonia, while our income is you know where when compared to the rest of Europe. The second question is what can be regarded as a mask. It remains unclear whether pulling a scarf up to your nose or a hat down to your chin constitutes as compliance. Thirdly, we should very openly talk about why countries that have made wearing masks mandatory have seen that it doesn't work.

For as long as these questions remain unanswered, people might not take to recommendations to wear a mask. However, it would be best if people complied out of free will. Because then they are being sincere and are really looking to protect themselves and others, instead of doing it to avoid punishment.

For example, I wear a mask when I feel it is warranted. I sometimes take the bus from Tallinn to Tartu. I have to spend two and a half hours in a small, closed space and I don't need an order or guidelines from the government or the board to wear a mask. It seems a lot of people behave in much the same way.

That we would have a second wave of the coronavirus this fall could not have come as a surprise. Did we have enough time to address the subject matter of masks to avoid sending such controversial messages?

Most definitely. Looking at the debate today, one side shrugs off legal nuances. They say that the government can simply order people to weak masks if needed. Others say that personal freedoms can only be limited in Estonia based on legal grounds. And that no such obligation can be put on people without corresponding legislation.

Personally, I believe that it is an unacceptable omission in legal order after the government and Riigikogu have had over six months to render the Communicable Diseases Prevention and Control Act more virus-proof.

We know how quickly bills have passed through the Riigikogu in the past. It is highly regrettable that the law has not been amended.

What is your recommendation for clearing up this confusion?

I'm no medical expert and cannot say how much use masks really are. However, what I can say is that if an obligation is based on very controversial legal grounds, it will end up causing more problems than it solves. No one needs these disputes right now.

As said before, communication is key. It needs to be honest and clear in terms of whether masks are mandatory or recommended. If it is the former, legal norms will have to be created very quickly, next to explanations of why wearing masks could have a positive effect in Estonia unlike in other countries.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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