Wearing facemasks is considered as one of the most important precautions for preventing spread of Covid-19. At the start of the pandemic a lot of debate happened around the wearing of facemasks. After research lifted the curtains on the unknown nature of the novel coronavirus, the importance of masks in preventing its spread was realised. The WHO and CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) gave timely advices and specifics about different types of masks, their usage, and risks. In our part of the world we had different categories of people based on their reaction to usage of face masks. Those readily realising and accepting the usage of masks must be applauded. Many immediately rushed to the shops and bought huge stocks of masks, almost creating a shortage of masks in the market. Some opportunistic businessmen immediately tried to become millionaires overnight. A mask normally costing five rupees was sold at 25 rupees. Another set of over-cautious people immediately adhered to usage of sophisticated respirator masks like FFP2, FFB, N95 and N99, which were primarily needed for hospital staff directly dealing with Covid positive patients. For these people, WHO had to issue a separate advisory that fabric and surgical masks are good enough to be used.
Fabric masks had a separate user base. The sleeping entrepreneur in many of us suddenly awakened and adhering to the idea of social entrepreneurship many started making hundreds of masks and some making it to headlines as last saviours of humanity from this pandemic. As strong evidence suggesting the usage of facemasks in reducing the transmission of coronavirus was found, several governments across the world passed orders for compulsory wearing of facemasks. From fines to lathis (batons), several tactics were applied for convincing masses to wear masks. Thus, somehow, people started wearing masks.
We had another category of modish and trendy people who immediately shifted to designer masks. For many women, mask colours had to be coordinated with their clothes. Three-piece dresses turned into four-piece dresses. It was time for some action also by our hijab-clad women, who could use hijab in place of mask or vice versa and at the same time question the critics of hijab for their stand vis-a-vis hijab.
Then came the laggards who had no intention of carrying a mask with them or wearing it. When caught in a situation of facing a fine for not wearing a mask, they donned anything from soiled handkerchiefs to masks used by others. Interestingly, in the USA mask usage become a partisan and divisive issue. Democrats in accordance with appeal from their leaders were more likely to wear a mask than Republicans. For Donald Trump, wearing a face mask was a political challenge to him. During the presidential election campaign, a lot of debate and rhetoric was witnessed between pro-mask and anti-mask people. There is still a huge anti-mask movement going on in the USA. Many raised the issue of individual freedom against imposing face masks, challenging the lathis, fines and other forms of punishments for not donning a mask.
Back to the science of masks, at the beginning of the pandemic due to lack of much evidence about spread of SARS-COV-2, medical experts didn’t make strong public health recommendations about using masks. Now it is strongly recommended by experts that masks not only protect us from Covid infection but also from other severe illnesses. And even though Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford vaccines are almost ready to be marketed, with much discussion about complications in logistics and affordability, it seems that masks are going to stay with us for much of 2021.
—The writer is a Kashmir-based columnist. [email protected]