If you’re sick and need to be around others, properly wearing a mask can protect those around you from contracting your illness.

–  CENTRES FOR DISEASE CONTROL AND PREVENTION

When news of the first death from Coronavirus reported on January 11 in Wuhan, China, and started to reach the outside world, one of my first reactions was to buy a modest supply of masks.

The natural human response to a strange, new disease making its way to a neighbourhood near you is to feel anxiety and want to DO SOMETHING. Just a few weeks later, there wasn’t a mask to be bought in pharmacies, or online for a reasonable price.

Many health experts, including Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah, no doubt motivated by the sensible and urgent aim of preserving the remaining masks for healthcare workers, started telling people that they didn’t need masks or that they wouldn’t know how to wear them correctly.

Put down the face mask, and step away.

If you are not in healthcare professional or caring for someone who has no infection like a new coronavirus infection, you probably do not need to buy a face mask now, just because of the outbreak.

As the pandemic rages on, there will be many difficult messages for the public. The message became counterproductive and may have encouraged even more hoarding because it seemed as though authorities were shaping the message around managing the scarcity rather than confronting the reality of the situation.

Here’s why. The public are told that masks aren’t necessary for protecting them and that healthcare workers needed the dwindling supply. This contradiction confuses an ordinary listener. How do these masks magically protect the wearers only and only if they work in a particular field?

Then there were attempts to bolster the first message, that ordinary people didn’t need masks, by telling people that masks, especially medical-grade respirator masks (such as the N95 masks), needed proper fitting and that ordinary people without such fitting wouldn’t benefit because if you wear them incorrectly, they can increase the risk of infection because they’re touching their face more often.

Many people also wash their hands wrongly, but we don’t respond to that by telling them not to bother. Instead, we provide instructions — Dr Tedros Adhanom, director general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) himself posts a short video on social media; we help people sing songs that time their hand-washing.

That they don’t replace hand-washing and social distancing, and that they work better if they fit properly. Telling people they can’t possibly figure out how to wear a mask properly isn’t a winning message.

Of course masks work, maybe not perfectly and not all to the same degree, but they do provide some protection. I did some quick reading on Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website and learned that their use has always been advised as part of the standard response to being around infected people, especially for people who may be vulnerable.

I also checked that the WHO officials also wear masks during their news briefings. In fact, many companies and governments around the world respond to the pandemic by immediately ramping up mask productions for mass distribution!

And of course, surgical masks don’t filter out small viral particles the way medical-grade respirator masks rated N95 and above do. However, even surgical masks protect a bit more than not wearing masks at all. That is logical.

Now that we are facing a respirator mask shortage, the government is recommending that surgical masks are “an acceptable alternative” for health care workers, again, obviously because some protection, even if imperfect, is better than none.

In the face of this, publicly presenting an absolute answer from Dr Noor Hisham “Face mask not needed at all” for something that requires a qualified response just makes people trust authorities even less.

The advice given is the public to wear masks if they are sick. However, if I understand it correctly, there is increasing evidence of asymptomatic transmission, especially through younger people who have milder cases and don’t know they are sick but are still infectious.

Since the world health authorities do say that masks lessen the chances that infected people will infect others, then everyone should use masks. If the public are told that only the sick people are to wear masks, then those who do wear them will be stigmatised and people may well avoid wearing them as if it screams “I am sick with coronavirus.”

Finally, providing top-down guidance with such obvious contradictions backfires exactly because lack of trust is what fuels hoarding and misinformation. It used to be said that back in the Soviet Union, if there was a line, you first got in line and then figured out what the line was for people knew that there were going to be shortages and that the authorities often lied, so they hoarded.

And when people feel as though they may not be getting the full truth from the authorities, snake-oil sellers and price gougers have an easier time.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.