Updated: Apr 26
Every day, the news headlines is about "shortages of face masks". Countries worldwide are increasing production or sourcing for supplies of those masks and some had even turned to black markets to get them at exorbitant prices. That little piece of protective gear is now hailed as a crucial preventive aid against the COVID-19 virus.
Sadly, the general public are using and throwing away large quantities of face masks everyday, probably with much lesser than 10% of them being contaminated by the virus. Misusing the masks has caused wastage of the important health resources for the reason of "just in case" and resulted in shortages for health workers who really need them.
Is the face masks really effective in stopping the spread of the virus?
Use a little common sense and you will probably feel it also that the face mask alone is no magic cure for the pandemic. Otherwise, many health workers around the world would not have contracted the virus in the course of their works and the disease would have been curbed months ago.
For people who are already infected, or not knowing that they are infected, face masks help to prevent the virus from being spread to others in direct contact or through a medium — from their mouths. But, if they touch their eyes, noses, mouths or even the face masks with their hands and subsequent come in contact with another person or transmissible (wet) medium, the virus can still be spread.
For people who are NOT infected, face masks can only stop the virus from entering their bodies through their noses and mouths. For instance, when talking to an infected person, tiny droplets of his/her saliva may got onto the face. If the saliva lands on the face mask, we are saved. If the saliva lands on the face, there may still be a chance for the virus to get into the body somehow. If it lands on the eyes, well, that's it!
Thus, the most probable means of contracting the virus from an infected person is still through the hands or other forms of physical close contact. A face mask alone is not sufficient, one will still need protective eyewear, rubber gloves, protective clothings, etc — short of putting on an astronaut suit with a fish tank over the head.
What if I am having my meal at a table in a cafeteria and someone walks pass my table and talking on his/her phone or to another person (without wearing a face mask), won't his/her saliva get into my food? What if I sit in a public transport and someone standing next to me is blabbing non-stop on his/her phone?
I have stopped eating out and sitting down on a public transport after such thoughts surfaced in my head. No face mask is going to save me from such scenarios.
From a social aspect, maintaining safe distancing and isolation from others is by far the most effective measure against the infection. Over-reliance on the face masks alone, and thinking that it can prevent anyone from catching the virus, is a big misconception. And that may probably be why the disease is still spreading around after three months from the first ringing of the alarm bell in December 2019.
On a personal basis, it is down to personal hygiene.
What is the first thing you do after stepping into the house after a day's work or other outside activities? Hug your spouse, kiss the kids, eat your dinner, watch favourite shows and — until it is about time to go to bed — then take a shower? If the virus has managed to get onto your body via whatever means, but not into you yet, it may have been passed to your family members.
You may not be the first to be infected in the family, but you can bring the virus home and circulate it around the house. The one with the lowest immunity in the house will catch the infection first.
So, the first thing to do on reaching home should be to take a shower and wash down thoroughly. Washing hands with disinfectant alone may get rid of virus on the hands, but not other parts of the body and even clothings.
When outside, make sure to wash both hands with soap prior to eating. Do pack along a small bottle of hand sanitiser (make sure to get an effective one) for use in case water and soap are not available.
When eating food around a table, stop talking! Serving spoons alone is not enough to stop contaminations completely. What if the saliva droplets get onto the serving spoons when talking? Won't those serving spoons become another transmissible medium that everybody use?
Wear a face mask if talking to/with other people. Otherwise, be a kid, "don't talk to others". And stop shaking hands — a lesson from the SARS episode that was never learnt. (Unfortunately, handshaking is a European culture that is deeply-rooted and used in almost all official and business events around the world.)
After removing a face mask, wash both hands immediately with disinfectant. If the face mask is a reusable type, wash and disinfect them too. More importantly, put it out under the sun to dry.
Lastly, get some washable cloth masks, at least two for each family members, use, wash, dry and reuse them. Avoid getting and wasting those surgical masks that the health workers depend on to safeguard their own lives when saving others. In addition, a cloth mask is more cost-effective than disposable surgical masks in the long run.