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600M face masks needed in immediate post-lockdown period

WE will need at the very least 600 million face masks just for the three-month period when the lockdown for the metropolitan Manila and the Calabarzon areas, the most infected regions in the country, is lifted, health department officials estimate.

This 600-million figure is a low estimate, based on the 7 million families in this area who would need at least one face mask per day. While the Department of Health (DoH) has been feverishly scrambling to stock up on such face masks, there has to be super-effort on the part of both national and local governments to secure those masks.

Other countries have already scrambled to secure as many face masks as they can. France, for instance, in March had ordered 1 billion from various companies, mostly in China.

My own experience is that none of the drugstores in our area have N95 masks and have only the surgical masks, with a customer allowed to buy only 10 pieces. The face masks I’ve seen more often worn are simple cloth masks made by enterprising sewers and tailors.

One has asked his countrymen to use face masks, the other hasn’t. Whose country has by far the worst case of the pandemic?

There has to be an orderly distribution of the masks, free of charge for the poor and at highly subsidized prices for those sold at stores. Congress must pass a law making it mandatory, with penalties for violations in areas the DoH deems such use necessary. There has to be massive information and even advertising campaigns to get everyone to use masks whenever they step out of their houses.

Experts, however, have strongly recommended an information campaign that would show the proper wearing of a face mask. An improperly worn one, as in the nose uncovered, would make it useless.

There has been an abundance of scientific studies that show that the widespread use of masks, of the kind sufficient to block microscopic droplets from coughing, is the most effective way of stopping the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19), hand in hand with physical distancing.

“The available evidence suggests that near-universal adoption of non-medical masks when out in public, in combination with complementary public health measures could successfully reduce effective-R to below 1.0, thereby stopping community spread of Covid-19,” according to an April 12 report jointly authored by over a dozen scientists from the United States and Europe. The study pointed out, though, that “simple cloth masks present a pragmatic solution for use by the public, which has been supported by the United States and European Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention].”

The more widespread use of face masks in Asia, where it has been for years culturally accepted, has been attributed as one of the factors why countries in the region have been largely able to contain the explosion of Covid-19.

In contrast, the use of face masks in the US and Europe — where Covid-19 cases have exponentially increased — has not been as culturally embraced.

A recent South China Morning Post (SCMP) article pointed out: “In many European countries and the United States, face masks can be used to racialize and stigmatize those of East Asian descent, including when a Chinese student from Britain’s University of Sheffield was verbally and physically harassed in January for wearing a mask, and a Chinese woman was assaulted and called ‘diseased’ in New York in February for doing the same.”

The 14 March SCMP article, which I presume to have been written by an ethnic Chinese, had informative insights on the cultural aspects of mask-wearing:

“Experts say cultural context plays a key role in whether people are willing to wear masks. Face masks are commonplace in East Asia not just for virus outbreaks, but also to block air pollution and even fend off cold weather. Japan, for example, has a long history of mask-wearing dating back to the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 to 1919. The practice has since become socially embedded as a self-protection ritual and part of people’s collective responsibility.

“‘In Japan, [face masks] became a very common [preventive] practice against the flu, and in the seventies and eighties people started using them for hay fever,’ said Mitsutoshi Horii, a professor at Shumei University who has researched mask-wearing in Japan. ‘More recently, there was kind of a public scare about polluted air from China and people started wearing masks for that.’

“People in Japan also wore masks to cover facial blemishes, keep warm in winter and help with shyness, he said. ‘People [in Japan] just naturally wear masks to feel safer. But in the West, because of strong resistance and belief in the importance of showing your face, people tend to have negative ideas about masks.’

“Officials in Hong Kong and China were reprimanded at the start of the coronavirus outbreak for not wearing face masks or not wearing them properly, with SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) undiminished in the public’s collective memory.

“Maria Sin Shun-ying from the University of Hong Kong wrote in 2014 about how SARS became connected with mask-wearing ‘to a degree that the mask itself served to delineate the disease’s identity’ and later became implicitly linked in Western media to censorship and cover-ups during the outbreak.

“‘Dramatic photos of masked crowds walking the streets of Asian cities, such as Hong Kong, were disseminated globally,’ she wrote. ‘The mask was invariably racialized and construed in the Western media as a distinctly ‘Asian’ phenomenon.’

“But since SARS, face masks as protection against pollution have been increasingly popularized in Asia by fashion designers with their ‘smog couture’ and by celebrities, including members of Korean boy band sensation BTS.

“Western stars, including Bella Hadid, Kate Hudson and Gwyneth Paltrow, have posted masked selfies on social media during the coronavirus outbreak. Croatian designer Zoran Aragovic launched a speciality ‘cheerful’ face mask collection earlier this month, and 220 masked couples took part in a mass wedding in the Philippine city of Bacolod in February.

“‘In North America, mask-wearing retained its association with Asian people,’ Harris Ali, a sociologist at Canada’s York University, said.

“‘It’s still seen as kind of outside the norm, and therefore not accepted. So the mask in that sense does become a stigmatizing symbol, especially if that’s not the norm. In a Chinese context, in a Hong Kong context, it’s lost that stigmatized aspect, and in fact may have the opposite value,’ he said.

“During SARS, face masks in Hong Kong became a symbol of solidarity against the disease and even of government distrust when the outbreak coincided with mass protests against Article 23, a proposed anti-subversion bill, that saw half a million people take to the streets on July 1, 2003, Ali said.

“‘In a more collectivist culture, the wearing of a mask takes on more significance than it does in the Western world,’ he said.”

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