Paynesville – Imagine seeing a sea of people – hawkers, pedestrians and commuters – wearing face masks in the commercial district of Red Light — Liberia’s largest commercial hub. Imagine you are downtown Monrovia and passing by scores of shoppers and business executives with their faces all covered with protective device.
By: Alpha Daffae Senkpeni | [email protected]
This is how disease outbreaks — epidemic or pandemic – alter our way of life. And adapting to the new normal becomes a commonplace.
Public health experts have stressed the importance of staying home, frequent washing hands and avoiding crowd as some remedies to flatten the curve. At the same time, politicians have also imposed additional measures like lockdown, ban on religious or other gatherings and now compulsory wearing of face mask or covering in public.
This is how COVID-19 is changing the sociocultural order of the world.
If the recent joint resolution passed by Liberia’s Legislature to further curb the spread of the pandemic in the country is anything to go by, then you’ll see thousands of people using masks or face shields in the next three months.
In a resolution authorizing President George Weah’s request for a State of Emergency, Liberia’s lawmakers, amongst several other things, affirmed the restrictions of citizens as imposed by the President and at the same time made a modification “to the extent that all persons appearing in public streets and buildings must wear a protective device that covers at least the nose and mouth”.
This appears to be one of several moves by the government to stop the further spread of Covid-19 which has already caused the death of seven persons and infected 81 while an additional 449 persons are being considered asaa “contacts under follow up”, the National Public Health Institute said on April 19.
Many Liberians including lawmakers have already turned to the use of mask. Video footage on social media has shown legislators wearing nose and mouth mask during session. But it is unclear how the general public will react to this new regulation.
Are Countries Imposing Use of Masks?
Several countries have already made using face covering or nose mask in public compulsory. China, South Korea, Austria, Czech Republic and Slovakia have all made it compulsory for people to wear “some form of covering” over their mouths and noses when entering certain public spaces.
In the United States, New York, a state hit hardest by the pandemic, has also encouraged the use of face covering in public.
In Africa, Liberia now joins Morocco, which has warned citizens that venturing outside their homes without wearing face masks will land them in prison for up to three months and a fine up to US$126, to impose the mandatory use of face covering in public.
The North African nation passed the law after it had recorded 1,141 cases and 83 deaths. Now, the country has a total of 2,564 with 135 deaths, according to World Health Organization.
Also, in Southwestern Nigeria, authorities have declared that it will be mandatory for people to wear masks when coming out from their homes.
“The Governors [of six different states] agreed that wearing of nose masks will be made compulsory for everybody coming out of their homes effective from Friday 24th April, 2020 in their respective states,” according to an article in Nigeria’s NewsDairy.
Kenya, Guinea and Rwanda have also passed laws imposing the wearing of masks in public.
However, in many other African countries wearing mask is not compulsory but observers say voluntary use of the sought-after product is becoming very popular as come countries health authorities recommend wearing cloth face mask in public.
Are Face Mask, Cover Effective?
Before many countries elected to demand the use of face covering including mask, there were mixed views about its usage. This was mainly because of debate over whether the virus was airborne or not. And whether using face mask could prevent you from infection?
The novelty of COVID-19 made researchers pondered about its exact mode of transmission at the beginning of the outbreak.
Research suggests that COVID-19 is transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and through contact routes. This means it spreads directly between people when coronavirus droplets reached the nose, mouth or eyes of an uninfected person, the WHO said.
While many began using mask, there were warnings from the WHO and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that improper use could put users at risk. Also, there were concerns that the hike in purchase by non-health workers could make masks scarce for hospitals when it would be desperately needed to cater to the sick. And, those users of mask would have negated or ignored other preventive measures like washing hands and social distancing.
“Wearing medical masks when not indicated may cause unnecessary cost, procurement burden and create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices. Furthermore, using a mask incorrectly may hamper its effectiveness to reduce the risk of transmission,” the WHO stated in a health advisory on the use of face mask published January 29.
Additionally, wide spread fear that COVID-19 was airborne prompted the random used of face mask. But the WHO would later clarified that the disease is “aerosol” and not airborne as was first speculated.
Scientists define aerosol as the mixture of small liquid or solid particles dispersed in the air. For example, when an infected person coughs or sneezes, droplets can be suspended in the air for a while, but because they are too heavy to hang in the air for long, these droplets quickly fall on floors or other surfaces.
The risk of contracting the virus is then high when you are within one meter of an infected person who sneezes or coughs.
What is even trickier about the virus is that there are infected persons who show no symptoms or are asymptomatic – leaving health experts to suggest that wearing mask limits the risk of catching the virus when you are in public where there might be asymptomatic person.
The WHO describes asymptomatic transmission as the spread of the virus from a person, who does not develop symptoms.
The increasing concerns about asymptomatic transmission has validated suggestions that wearing mask reduces the risks especially when using public transportation or in a crowded place like the market.
“We encourage all JHU affiliates to wear non-medical, cloth face coverings in public and at work as a way to slow the spread of the virus and help diminish the risk that asymptomatic people who may be carrying the virus transmit it to others,” the John Hopkins University, a leading US research university, stated on its website.
And the CDC adds that since “the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity” it’s important that people be “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”.
“It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others,” it added.
Meanwhile, experts have suggested the wearing of cloth mask, which they say can be washed and reused. The CDC also advise hand washing of cloth mask with soap and hot water after each use and should be dried on high heat, while also recommending that users thoroughly wash their hands after removing or handling used masks.
Will the ‘Face Covering’ Regulation Hold?
In Liberia, many laws sleep. Some are even ignored. For example, the ban on public smoking is the most silent public health law of the country. This raises concerns about the enforcement of the “wearing protective device in public” regulation.
The government has not clearly outlined the penalty for would be violators or neither embarked on rigorous explanations of its public health benefits. However, some Liberians say massive sensitization would further encourage the proper and safe use of cloth masks that are being produced locally.
On the other hand, others have warned that enforcement of the regulations would require rigidity and public awareness. Whatever the approach, adhering to Science-based public health recommendations is crucial to averting more infections of COVID-19.