face masks

07 Apr 2020

Coronavirus: face masks for the public

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Public health authorities, politicians and media figures say masks do not help to fight the Coronavirus. Thus, they are urging people to focus on washing their hands and maintain social distancing. Despite hearing that face masks ‘don’t work,’ you probably haven’t seen any strong evidence to support that claim. That’s because it doesn’t exist. In fact, there is evidence of the exact opposite: that masks help prevent viral infections like the current pandemic.

One study of community transmission in Beijing found that consistently wearing a mask in public might be responsible for a 70% reduction in the risk of catching SARS. The disease caused by the same family of viruses called coronavirus. From the beginning, Hong Kong and many other Asian governments recommended that people wear masks in public. Whether they are showing virus symptoms or not. Despite eye-rolling in some parts of the Western press and talk of Asia’s “obsession” with masks, the tactic appears to be contributing in helping to stem the outbreak.

face masks
Women wearing face masks walk on a street in Bangkok. (Source: Observer)

How people are using face masks around the world

Taiwan, South Korea, and mainland China see greater success in preventing major outbreaks by using face masks.  They are places with widespread mask use. If you look at the data in Hong Kong, wearing a mask is probably the most important thing in terms of infection control. Besides, it not only brings down the cases of coronaviruses. It also brings down influenza. Thus, using face masks protects people against other diseases as well.

How Coronavirus spreads

Coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneeze. They can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby. But you can inhale it into the lungs as well. If you have a homemade cloth mask, use it. When you wear it correctly and avoid touching it, science suggests that it won’t hurt you. The use will most likely reduce your exposure to the virus.

Trying to avoid mask shortages for healthcare workers appears to be the main priority of those arguing against their widespread use. But, while the motivation behind this may have been good, such advice may have actually helped spread the virus. Thus, it actually helped it to add many other patients, overwhelming hospitals.

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This conflicting advice helped create confusion and people asking “why are face masks good for healthcare workers but not for the public?”. In the coming weeks, if they have not already, your government is likely to begin advising you to wear a face mask to protect against coronavirus.

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