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OP-ED: Making masks mandatory -- yea or nay?

  • Published at 07:32 pm July 17th, 2020
N95 respiration masks
Reuters

It’s all about being socially responsible

“To be or not to be, that is the question.” 

Or rather, to wear a mask or not, that has been the burning question since the advent of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year. A question the UK still seems unable to answer.

Like many people, underlying health issues meant that my contact with the outside world had been severely restricted. I was also reliant on others to do my shopping. After five months of quarantine, going to the supermarket was an exciting prospect. Not having been in a public space since lockdown began, I thought it prudent to arm myself with a hand sanitizer and a mask. 

The image I had in mind was of orderly queues outside shops; a one-way system to negotiate the aisles so as to maintain social distancing, and people in a variety of face coverings, things I had heard from those able to go out for essential groceries. 

But the reality was completely different. There were no queues when we arrived, no security or staff ushered us in, and the customers were zigzagging through aisles willy-nilly, standing next to us and peering over our shoulders as they browsed the various shelves. 

As for people wearing masks, we were the minority. The only difference that was noticeable was the perspex barrier between us and the cashier. 

The outcome of my shopping expedition is that I will think twice before repeating the exercise, given that health-wise I fall under the “vulnerable” category as do so many other people. It would be both unwise and unsafe. 

Masks prevent the spread of the virus; wearing a mask is ineffectual; surgical masks are better than cloth ones; any form of face covering is better than none; social distancing is more effective than wearing a mask. The ever-shifting goal posts have been a source of confusion for most of us. 

Dr Hilary, resident doctor on The Good Morning Britain Show, suggested on numerous occasions that “psychologically, it might make you feel better wearing a mask, but what’s more important is keeping a physical distance … if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask, but there’s no evidence that it’s beneficial.” Then in a spectacular U-turn recently stated that there is no reason not to wear a mask in public spaces.

A recent study by Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science maintains that “cloth face coverings, even homemade masks made of the correct material, are effective in reducing the spread of Covid-19 - for the wearer and those around them.”

Given the contradictory statements and guidelines coming from doctors, the UK government, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, and the World Health Organization (WHO), the public have been left to make up their own minds as to the efficacy of wearing a mask. 

Since the relaxing of the lockdown rules, shops have reopened, restaurants are booked up and, to a certain extent, life is rapidly returning to “normal.” Thinking back to the scenes when pubs opened their doors on the Fourth of July, I realize I should hardly have been surprised at the lax attitude by other shoppers. 

Soho in London on that day was more crowded than in pre-Covid-19 days. No masks and definitely no social distancing, not even the new reduced one-metre rule. 

According to a combined study of approximately 30 countries conducted by YouGov and the Institute of Global Health Innovation (IGHI) at Imperial College London, only 36% of the British public said they wear masks when they are out and about, whereas people in countries such as Singapore, where mask wearing is mandatory, the number is 90%, the highest in the world. 

Within Europe, Spain has the highest proportion of people wearing masks, with 86% followed by Italy (83%) and France (78%). 

It was also found that three in four people would be willing to wear face masks if an international organization advised it (74%). They would be more willing if it were advised by government (77%) or if it were the law (82%). 

Professor Melinda Mills, director of the Leverhulme Centre, stated that “the evidence is clear that people should wear masks to reduce virus transmission and protect themselves, with most countries recommending the public to wear them. Yet, clear policy recommendations that the public should broadly wear them has been unclear and inconsistent in some countries such as England.” 

From July 24, the wearing of masks will be mandatory in shops and supermarkets. The confusion and inconsistency in government policy, with the delay in imposing lockdown, the delay in social distancing policy, and now the delay with regards to wearing face masks, is baffling. The UK government has consistently taken precautions after the event. The saying “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted” comes to mind. 

Despite the new rule coming into force, some shop-keepers have said that they are unwilling to turn away customers even if they do not have a mask. Others feel it will be difficult to enforce the rule. 

Wearing a mask is not an infringement on one’s rights, it is not about being embarrassed at how you look, or whether it is uncomfortable (unless you have a medical condition) wearing one, it is about being socially responsible. 

Ultimately, the only way the new rules will be successful is if people believe it will have a substantial impact on lowering infection rates, more so than imposing fines and trying to enforce them. Therefore, a unifying message from the scientific community and the government would be necessary to achieve this.

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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