Mon | May 25, 2020

Editorial | Weak guidance on face masks

Published:Wednesday | April 8, 2020 | 12:15 AM

If we didn’t know better, we might have assumed that the health ministry’s belated guidance, issued Monday, on the use of face masks against COVID-19 was a product of Donald Trump. Not only is the endorsement half-hearted, but it risks subjecting anyone wearing masks in public to ridicule, stigma and discrimination.

Christopher Tufton, the health and wellness minister, should, therefore, as is said in Jamaica, wheel and come again. He must order a recasting of the message, to include a full-throated endorsement of the wearing of face masks, including make mandatory their use, as we suggested previously, on public transportation and in public buildings.

None of this should preclude an aggressive promotion of other methods to slow the spread of the coronavirus, such as encouraging people to, as much as possible, stay at home, avoid crowds, and, if they have to be out and about, maintain physical distancing. People must be reminded, too, of the efficacy of frequent handwashing.

We are disappointed, however, with the wishy-washy way the authorities have gone about telling people that wearing masks can be useful in helping to keep the virus at bay. Their flaccidity is happening as mask-wearing is becoming mainstream.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spread primarily when the droplets emitted by infected persons, when they cough, sneeze, laugh and even talk, are ingested by other people through the mouth, nose and eyes. Some of these droplets, the experts say, aerosolise, hang about in the atmosphere for a relatively long time, waiting to attack unsuspecting victims. Further, what helps to make COVID-19 so dangerous is its stealth. Many of the people who have the virus show no signs of illness but can infect other persons.

In the circumstances, it seems obvious that wearing masks is a good idea. At least on two fronts. Persons with their mouths and noses covered with masks will better contain any expectoration, and are therefore less likely to spread the coronavirus – if they have it. And those persons who are not infected have some level of protection. That’s a win-win.

For this, people need not wear high-grade masks. Those, at that time, must be for medical professionals on the front line of combating the virus. For now, fabric masks, increasingly being worn across Europe and North America, will do.

‘EVERY MICKLE MEK A MUCKLE’

In Jamaica, however, the health and wellness ministry starts its guidance by recommending that they should be worn by persons who “are coughing or sneezing”; people who are quarantined or isolated at home, and their caregivers; former COVID-19 patients who have been discharged from hospital; and elderly persons with chronic illnesses.

Other persons are addressed almost as an afterthought.

“Members of the public are at highest risk of exposure to droplets emitted by infected persons in crowded situations, and where these situations cannot be avoided, wearing a mask will decrease the likelihood of exposure,” the ministry said.

Based on the tone of this guidance, a person wearing a face mask in public risks being deemed as someone who ought to be in, or has escaped quarantine or isolation, or is otherwise ill. In other words, the health ministry’s guidance may well turn the face mask into a symbol of stigma and discrimination, rather than a tool of precaution. In Jamaica, stigma is a battle being fought by persons who have COVID-19.

Again, no one sees wearing face masks as a panacea. We understand what is said about the possibility of masks creating a false sense of security. That can be dealt with by education and messaging. But as is said in Jamaica, which is apt in the midst of this crisis, ‘every mickle mek a muckle’.