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Easing Covid-19 lockdown: Will wearing face masks be safe enough?

  • Published at 02:51 am May 9th, 2020
Dhaka Lockdown used
File photo: Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

WHO says that masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning 

When Bangladesh is seeing a spike in Covid-19 infections every day, the government has announced an easing of movement for all on a limited scale, amid the ongoing “general holidays” declared to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Experts say no prevention will be successful on an empty stomach, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has also recommended enforcing interventions while ensuring survival of the economy.

According to epidemiologists in the country, wearing masks, and shutting down educational institutions and public transport, have the greatest impact on reducing the spread of Covid-19 in a country where people are not particularly specific about the matters of hygiene. 

Researchers at the Imperial College in the UK have estimated the transmission rate of the virus which causes Covid-19 to be at 2.4, though some research suggests it could be as high as 5.7. In other words, without containment measures, Covid-19 will spread far and fast.

So, when easing restrictions on movement, ensuring the wearing of masks and  social distancing would be a better solution to slow down the spread of the virus, say epidemiologists and public health experts in the country. 

In addition, WHO says that masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning with alcohol based sanitizer, or soap and water.

Associate professor of epidemiology, Dr Md Rizwanul Karim Shameem, a program manager for the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), said sneezing, coughing, and wheezing are the main sources of spreading coronavirus. 

If a barrier could be made during these processes, keeping physical distance, it would be hard for the virus to find a probable receiver, he said. 

And that is why the DGHS technical directive - divided into three chapters - has prioritized wearing masks for every enterprise or individual as a protective measure, the epidemiologist said.

The DGHS has already formulated a technical guideline to protect individuals and control Covid-19, following WHO recommendations.

Global evidence of the practice

Although the global community became well aware of using face masks as a non-pharmaceutical intervention to control virus transmission during the influenza pandemic back in 2009, they remained in confusion over the use of face masks in the case of coronavirus till late March.

Amid the puzzling situation, several countries like Venezuela and the Czech Republic made wearing masks mandatory in March.

But the scenario started changing in the first week of April as the world started favouring wearing masks.

While many countries in Europe and America are struggling to control Covid-19, Asian countries, mostly close to China, have relatively managed to skip the disaster. 

Hong Kong has officially said the practice of wearing masks has helped to control the spread of the coronavirus. Taiwan authorities also walked the same way soon after the outbreak, and managed to keep the spread of the virus under control. 

According to an Al Jazeera report, more than 50 countries have made the use of masks mandatory for their citizens when they leave home. Many of these countries have also imposed fines on their citizens for flouting the rule. 

Necessity of wearing face masks

With his team, Jeremy Howard, a distinguished research scientist at the University of San Francisco in the US, in a manuscript titled "Face Masks Against COVID-19: An Evidence Review" that was published on preprints.org, said: "The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces the transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected droplets in both laboratory and clinical contexts.

"Public mask wearing is most effective at stopping the spread of the virus when compliance is high. The decreased transmissibility could substantially reduce the death toll and economic impact while the cost of the intervention is low."

They also recommended public officials and governments strongly encourage the widespread use of face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulations.

DGHS Program Manager Dr Shameem said droplets expelled by a mask wearer when they speak, cough or sneeze, quickly turn into tiny particles. If the mask wearer has Covid-19, the individuals around him or her are at high risk of contracting the disease through inhalation.

However, as a mask helps to minimize droplets from mixing with the air, and that can lead to a lower viral density, he added.  That reduces the likelihood of transmission of the virus to another person.

Infectious disease expert Dr Be-nazir Ahmed said masks are designed to protect people from the wearer, by serving as a source control, which refers to blocking droplets ejected by the wearer.

He said that according to a China study, asymptomatic people are more infectious, so all people should wear masks when they go out. If possible, surgical masks.

If they are unable to buy surgical ones, a three-ply cotton cloth face mask would be enough for better protection in public places, he added.

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