Covid-19 pandemic: The defence of the mask

  • Connexions
  • 2020-12-30
  • 926

Think of the earliest image of a doctor in a mask, and chances are it will send a chill down your spine. In the 17th century, plague doctors could be mistaken for grim reapers. The elaborate black robes worn by them were accentuated by ‘beak-like’ masks. Perforated on the sides, these masks would be filled with herbs, like lavender and peppermint, to protect them from ‘bad smells’. This is, arguably, the most striking image of the face mask, which has been lampooned many times. Some even contend, albeit lightheartedly, it was the fear of being treated by the plague doctor that made many nervous, and hence more vulnerable.

Three centuries and many tweaks later, masks are back on our faces and have become a definitive symbol of life during novel coronavirus disease (Covid-19). During a pandemic that has claimed lives and livelihoods, a mask is the safest accessory, but its efficacy and use have not gone unchallenged. From being deemed dispensable in the early months of the pandemic to being seen as a tool of intimidation to spawning its own fashion trend, the face mask has had quite a journey in 2020.

The mask has been the most visible symbol of our transition to the ‘new normal’. If some were still in denial, it didn’t help that international bodies remained in two minds about the efficacy of the mask. A statement by Dr Mike Ryan, the executive director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) health emergencies programme, is often quoted to present a case against wearing masks where he reportedly suggested “there is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit”. What the sceptics tended to omit from that statement was the context. As the WHO declared the pandemic, the awareness grew among the masses, and healthcare providers were faced with a shortage of masks, especially N-95. The aim back then had been to supply masks to doctors, nurses and other health workers in direct contact with Covid-19 patients. The rationing was necessary to avoid hoarding and actually provide masks to those who had been working on the frontline. It wasn’t until manufacturers ramped up production that this shortage was addressed.

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