Thursday, 13 June, 2024
HomeWeekly RoundupWest and SA increasingly endorse mass public use of face masks

West and SA increasingly endorse mass public use of face masks

Western countries have begun to embrace the mass public use of face masks to combat coronavirus in a growing trend that mimics long-standing anti-pandemic measures in parts of Asia, reports Business Day. Austria followed Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia-Herzegovina by saying it would be compulsory for people to wear the protective gear outside the home, even though the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not recommend such a move.

The report says the Financial Times looks at the scientific, cultural and behavioural factors behind the shift in attitudes towards masks, as the pandemic continues to sweep the globe.

Can masks halt coronavirus spread?
Most experts agree that wearing a face mask can stop some virus-laden watery droplets that are thought to be a main coronavirus vector and are expelled into the air when a person coughs, sneezes or just breathes out. More contentious is whether they help reduce the risk of a person becoming infected by inhaling the virus through their nose or ingesting via the mouth.

Safety in numbers
Proponents of masks say their primary value is less to protect the wearer than to prevent that person from infecting others. They help curb the spread of droplets by breathing, coughing or sneezing in crowded environments such as public transport. They can also help stop the contamination of surfaces and goods on supermarket shelves.

Western reluctance could be changing
One reason for Western authorities’ caution about recommending the mass wearing of masks has been a concern about shortages that have already prompted many countries to increase local manufacturing and scour the world for extra supplies.
Taiwan on April 2 pledged to donate 10-million face masks to countries hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, including EU member states and the US.

Fashion in Asian countries
The changing policies in some European countries move them closer to the positions of Asian counterparts. While citizens in Western countries such as the US did resort to face protection when the Spanish flu pandemic ripped across the globe in 1918, mask-wearing fell away again once the threat receded. Many Asian countries, by contrast, have been sensitised by being on the front line of outbreaks of dangerous diseases, notably the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus in the early 2000s.

Pitfalls in poor nations
Masks are not a substitute for other measures to quell the spread of the virus, such as large-scale testing, physical distancing and regular hand washing. Face gear also needs to be changed regularly to avoid contamination: a particular potential problem in poor countries, where people lack the means to buy new masks or clean old ones. The protection’s effectiveness can also fall away with repeated washing.

It emerged last week that the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) is reviewing its stance on discouraging members of the public from using masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Business Day reports that the WHO and the NICD, a government body that provides research and advice on infectious diseases, have until now consistently said that ordinary people do not need to wear masks unless they are sick or caring for someone who is.

They have said that hygiene and social distancing offer people the best protection against getting infected by the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus, which is spread largely through droplet infection, and that the global scarcity of masks means they should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.

But more and more countries around the world are now following the example of Asian governments in advising people to use masks when they go out in public as concern mounts that infected people could transmit the virus before they show symptoms.

The report says the NICD has joined a growing number of health authorities, including the WHO and US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in confirming that it was reconsidering its position.

The simple question of whether ordinary members of the public – and not just healthcare workers – wear masks during the COVID-19 pandemic does not have a simple answer, says a Daily Maverick report. The report says when the Health Department was contacted to ask for clarity on the official stance on mask-wearing, “we were directed to Health Minister Zweli Mkhize’s public comments on the matter this week.”

Mkhize said: “There is no question that the use of masks is one of the best ways of preventing the spread of infection. We recommend them, particularly where people have any cough or any symptoms or in a situation where social distancing is a bit difficult.”

Amendments to the public transport regulations during lockdown also now mean that minibus taxis may carry more passengers, as long as they are wearing masks.

The report says the taxi-related policy changed twice in the course of Wednesday alone, with Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula first announcing at an afternoon press conference that taxis would now be permitted to carry 100% passenger loads as long as all passengers were wearing surgical masks. By Wednesday night, Mbalula had been forced to “rescind” this. The updated policy is now that taxis may only carry a maximum of 70% of their passenger loads — and all passengers must wear N95 respiratory masks.
The question of where these medical-grade masks are going to come from, in a situation where healthcare workers have already reported shortages of protective gear, is already being raised – along with concerns over whether taxi drivers seeking to fill their vehicles may end up re-using masks and inadvertently exacerbating health risks.

But, the report says, the conclusion we can draw from the new policy is that the South African government has accepted the notion that the protection offered by masks may be better than nothing, particularly in cramped environments like taxis.

[link url=""]Full Business Day report[/link]

[link url=""]Full Business Day report[/link]

[link url=""]Full Daily Maverick report[/link]

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