Many of us will have observed that it is normal for Asian citizens to wear face masks. We see Chinese and Japanese tourists wearing masks on our streets, and we notice because it’s not something that we ourselves do. And if we have given it a thought, we would conclude they do have massive pollution issues in large cities such as Beijing and Tokyo. Now ask yourself the question, why is it that China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore seem to have managed the Coronavirus better than the West? Of course, there are multiple reasons, particularly comprehensive testing and contact tracing. But an additional reason may be the ubiquitous wearing of masks just may have played a significant part.
There are lots of conflicting opinions on using Face Masks. The medical experts say only medical people should use them. And understandably they are most concerned about the supply shortage and the need to prioritize the front-line workers in hospitals, nursing homes, test centres etc. One of American’s top health officials, battling a catastrophic shortage of masks for healthcare workers, has very recently tweeted for people to “STOP BUYING MASKS! So, no contest there.
But it does seem clear that all types of masks protect healthcare workers from high levels of viral pathogens to some extent. From the lowly paper mask to ultra-high filtration N95 masks designed to stop aerosols, decades of studies show masks stop healthcare workers from getting infected in hospitals and prevent sick people from spreading disease to others. Even home-made masks, although not as effective as surgical products, but most experts say they are better than nothing when it comes to preventing the spread of coronavirus. At the very least they will contain the wearer’s sneeze or drips that form the lethal spray infecting others.
George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was part of a team that did the first isolation and sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Gao later earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Oxford and did postdocs there and at Harvard University, specializing in immunology and virology. Very recently the Science Journal asked Gao, “What mistakes are other countries making?“ He replied, “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
It would seem to be an obvious next step, as we start to lift some of the extreme restrictions, to strongly advise or even mandate the wearing of face masks. This won’t be easy. It’s not currently socially acceptable, there are clearly worldwide supply issues with consequent price issues also. However, there’s little doubt that the Irish public would, after a period of such extreme social isolation, be prepared to change their habits of a lifetime. Clearly supply and price issues must be solved and this would offer immediate commercial opportunity for firms struggling with the enforced commercial shutdown as well as a place for simply DIY and cottage industry solutions.
There is no reason why this strategy should not be introduced immediately. People are currently going to essential workplaces and going shopping for food and essentials. This will be a profound social change that may need to be in place for 12 months or more until a vaccine becomes available. It would be a key action that would mitigate the severity of a second and even subsequent infection peaks.
The widespread adoption of face masks would be a highly personal and positive demonstration of individuals taking further responsibility upon themselves to ensure we manage our way out of the pandemic.
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