Covid-19: Face Mask or No Face Mask?

Screenshot of Facebook group discussion. Photo: Katrina Herting / The Oslo Desk.

Why does Norwegian Institute of Public Health (Folkehelseinstituttet – FHI) tell us not to use masks when they are using them in China, South Korea and Japan? This kind of discussion appeared in multiple Facebook groups on Coronavirus in Norway.

While some countries, like Czech Republic, have made mask-wearing compulsory, FHI does not recommend people to wear them outside of the healthcare system. They explain that masks won’t give protection to the wearer because it is difficult for people to use them properly without prior training. Wearing them could also pose a risk of infection, “[f]ace masks are uncomfortable, and as a rule, untrained personnel who wear face masks frequently touch the mask and their face,” writes FHI.

They don’t help! Really?

It seems like the masks aren’t going to protect you from catching the virus. How about preventing the virus from spreading?

In the same article, FHI states that face masks are primarily designed to prevent transmission from healthcare professionals to patients. By the same token, WHO advises people who are coughing or sneezing to wear masks for prevention of spreading.

“Invisible carrier” patients who are tested positive with no symptoms of COVID-19, is a global concern for many scientists. As an example, about half of the cases in Iceland fall into this category. With little, mild or similar symptoms with flu, it is hard to detect who the carriers are. You could be reading this article, sipping tea, and not realise that your child has passed the virus to you from school – because none of you are feeling ill.

COVID-19 is similar to SARS, which broke out in 2002. They are both caused by coronavirus and are spread through respiratory droplets. But it was much easier to contain SARS. SARS gave infected people severe symptoms – pneumonia, fever, etc, and therefore it was obvious to be identified. The carriers, therefore, were isolated and treated.

The new coronavirus gave the public health system a challenge because of the invisible carriers. And there are still many unknown facts about it.

Covid-19 Can Stay Longer On Surfaces

What we do know is that scientists have found the virus could stay on surfaces, “[it]was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and [the] viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces.”

Plastic – many food items are wrapped in, is potentially spreading the virus. Many grocery stores do not require their staff to wear masks but gloves. The intention could be protecting their staff from contracting the virus. However,  they could be passing germs from the bag of potato chips of their first customer to everyone, until the twentieth person before she changes the gloves.

So what could be the solution? Some countries are ordering every citizen to wear masks. In this case, you lower the chance of splashing any droplet onto the fridge handle while talking to your daughter in the store. The kind old lady who later comes into the store wouldn’t catch the virus after buying her milk for the week. Her children and grand-children would be thankful that she lives to see tomorrow. The same goes for the metro handles, lift buttons or the building doors.

Homemade Face Masks

But there is no mask available on the market! They are way too expensive if you do end up finding them! We barely have enough masks for the healthcare workers!

It is true. But it is not a valid reason to inform citizens to abandon the thought that masks could potentially save lives.

Overnight, Czech Republic ordered the whole nation to wear masks. To fulfill the demand, everyone began sewing masks at homes. A filmmaker in Hong Kong opened a factory to produce 100,000 masks per day, selling them for 1,3kr. Singaporean government distributed four masks to each household. Oi Man Leung and Melany Wan, who live in Oslo and Bærum respectively, are making masks with online instructions. Even luxury brands, such as Prada, are redesigning their factories to make masks. Mask productions by enterprises, governments and individuals have been seen globally.

Mask-making at home – by Melany Wan

Homemade mask – by Oi Man Leung

Face Masks Can Save Lives

Sitting at home is helpful. But some people do need to go to work, grocery shopping, fixing their cars, etc. Covering your face might not save you, but it could stop you from spreading it before you even realise that you are carrying the virus.

It is not a comfortable experience – I can assure you from my personal experience of living nine months with SARS in Hong Kong. It is not easy to learn and maintain the correct way of using masks. It will take us some time to get used to it.

But it saves life and the economy.

We are all in this together. If we don’t lose someone today, your neighbour might. Losing one person is already too many when we could do something to avoid this. Will you be on the team? Would you applaud the people who wear face masks because they are saving lives by taking an extra step?

Katrina Herting

Katrina is a Hakkanese - born and raised in Hong Kong. She worked and studied in 8 countries in the past 10 years - including US, UK, France and now Norway. Graduated from Hong Kong Baptist University - International Journalism, her passion is to discover the beauty of cultural difference across humanities. She is also interested in languages, arts, environment, government policy, food, education, and many more.