For decades, people in the western world have looked at Asian countries with a sense of confusion over their use of face masks. Were they onto something?
Why were they wearing them? Do they work? What has in the past been a fascination has now turned into a public debate, which of course orbits around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Until recently the official guidelines given outside of Asia have mostly been that unless you have COVID-19 or are caring for someone who does, you probably do not need to wear a mask in public. The rationale for this position has been two-fold. Firstly, as a matter of public health, and in an environment of scarcity, medical supplies should be prioritised to those on the front lines. Secondly, there is the issue that the science may not support that on average, masks are an effective method in preventing the disease in the public.
Understandably this has raised questions such as, “why do doctors wear them for protection, but I cannot”. The response has been that masks, especially the protective n95 mask are a professional tool and that if not used correctly can become a vector of transmission as opposed to a protective item. Further, experts are concerned that in providing a sense of security to the face, that the public may forget other effective measures such as hand washing and face touching. Countering this is that if this is true, then why not educate the public, such as what was achieved during the AIDS epidemic and the use of condoms? After-all, like face masks, condoms pose all manner of issues if not used correctly and disposed of with care.
But attitudes are changing based on the fact that evidence is now mounting that COVID-19 is transmissible via microdroplets. Scientist do not know exactly where on the spectrum of being “airborne” the disease is, but it is becoming clear that transmission via this medium is a risk factor. This is where the debate around masks become less about protecting one’s self and more about protecting the greater public from those that may be infected. Especially in those that may be asymptomatic. This is why we are seeing the official health authorities in many countries change their official health advice.
The American CDC has now officially endorsed the use of face coverings for the general public. Stating on their website that the “CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.” The Austrian government has also now made it compulsory to wear basic masks in supermarkets and other food and drug stores.
The idea of wearing protective mask in order to prevent onward transmission from the user to others appears gaining support across the world. Although there is still uncertainty about how useful the measure will be in practice, it is clear that, many are looking to the Asian countries, who have long experience with such viruses and asking, maybe they were doing something right.