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No Ka Oi Health

This month’s article is not a typical health education article about physical activity or nutrition. Yet it’s an important and timely discussion within public health and is a large topic in the world — our freedoms.

The United States of America is a country based on individual freedoms, and we have many — freedom of speech, freedom to vote regardless of gender or race, freedom to become educated and take a job, to own property, to attend public school — the list goes on.

At the same time, we have laws and mandates that aim to protect our collective health and safety and to prevent chaos while at the same time retaining our freedoms. For example, while we have the freedom to get a driver’s license, we do not have the right to drive while intoxicated; while we have the freedom to marry and have children, we do not have the right to hit our spouse or our children; and while we have the freedom to own a firearm, we do not have the right to fire it anywhere we wish; and while we have the freedom to move around freely, we do not have the right to trespass on other people’s property. These laws do not take away from our freedoms. Rather, they work hand-in-hand with our freedoms to, again, protect our own health and safety, to prevent chaos and to protect other’s freedoms to live in a healthy and safe environment.

Our state, country and world have been in a public health emergency for a year and a half. Certain rules have been put in place to protect our health and safety, including wearing a mask when in public. There is a small, yet significant, number of people who believe that mask mandates violate their “freedoms.” But truly, similar to the laws and mandates listed previously, mask mandates are set, based on scientific research, to protect our health and safety so we can continue to enjoy our freedoms. By protecting ourselves and others, we can continue to freely go to work, attend school and shop at businesses. And hopefully, as people continue to protect each other, this pandemic can calm down and we can eventually not need masks in the future.

Now some people will argue that they should have the right to not wear a mask as they are willing to put themselves at risk. Again, as an analogy, we have laws to protect the user. We require people to wear seat belts when in a motor vehicle and we require motorcyclists to wear helmets. These laws are put in place not only to protect the user, but also to protect our health care resources. Similar with wearing a mask to protect yourself from COVID-19 — you may be willing to get infected with COVID-19, but we need to protect our health care resources. If you get infected and need to go to the hospital, you will be needing hospital services, where staff are already overworked and extremely fatigued, and you will be needing our hospital resources (beds, oxygen, etc.), which are lacking in supply. Furthermore, we can’t ignore that you are putting others at risk who may also then need these resources. So, masks are important during this pandemic to protect you, others and our valuable hospital resources.

Beyond governmental mandates, each business has the right to instill their own stricter rules. Similar to the signs stating, “no shirts, no shoes, no service,” many businesses, schools, colleges, etc., are setting their own mask mandates. These businesses see the benefits of protecting each other with masks so their businesses can remain open safely.

As a health educator, I spend much time researching multiple angles to topics. I encourage each of you to do the same. By educating yourself on each side of a topic, it improves communication and empathy, which is much needed right now. Using factual and reliable resources, hopefully we can see that public health rules, including mask mandates, are ultimately set to protect our health, safety, and yes — our freedoms.

If you have comments or questions, you may call the Public Health Education Office at (808) 984-8216 or email me at kristin.mills@doh.hawaii.gov. I am always open to have a respectful conversation. Mahalo.

* Kristin Mills is a public health educator with the state Department of Health’s Maui District Health Office. No Ka Oi Health is published monthly on Thursdays by the state Department of Health.

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