WHO Advice On Mask Usage Hypocritical?

New developments have put the spotlight on the WHO’s recommendation on the use of medical masks to curb spread of Covid-19.


A grocery store in Bengaluru displays clear instructions on mask usage / TF

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Preetika Parashuraman

The demand for medical masks has sky-rocketed as a result of the global Covid-19 pandemic. Recently, there was a brawl between shoppers in a supermarket in Hyderabad. A verbal spat broke out when shoppers encountered two people not wearing a mask. Many grocery shops in India are going so far as refusing to serve customers who do not wear masks. Do masks actually protect people from contracting Covid-19?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided guidance on the use of face masks. Covid-19 is spread when healthy persons inhale droplets when infected persons sneeze or cough. The WHO recommends the use of face masks only in specific cases to protect against this.

WHO Recommendations

Sick individuals must wear a medical mask. Dr. Issac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist says that there is no evidence to prove that medical masks can protect ones wearing them. However, others are protected from infected droplets that may come out while coughing or sneezing.

If you are a healthcare worker or are caring for a suspected or confirmed Covid-19 case, you should wear a medical mask. This is because you will be in close and repeated contact with contagious patients. In fact, the main reason behind the WHO recommendation against the general population wearing masks is to ensure that doctors and health workers have adequate access to and supply of medical masks.

If you are healthy, the best way to protect yourself from contracting Covid-19, according to the WHO, is to follow hand hygiene and social distancing measures. Mark Loeb, a microbiologist and infectious disease physician remarked, “I do not think that it is a sound public health policy for people to be going out and purchasing medical masks and N95 respirators and wearing them out on the street”.

Are the WHO mask recommendations wrong?

New studies show that there may be a large proportion of people infected with Covid-19 who do not have any symptoms but who may nonetheless be able to spread the virus. Questions are also raised on the apparent hypocrisy in the WHO recommendations, which imply that medical masks can protect healthcare workers from Covid-19 but not the general population. Countries are therefore rethinking their public policy on wearing masks. Countries like the Czech Republic have gone as far as making it mandatory for everyone to wear masks.

If you must wear a mask, here's how to do it right

According to Public Health officials, masks can provide a false sense of protection and can even result in infection if not used in the right fashion. If you own a mask, WHO illustrates how to use one:

  • It is advised to clean your hands with an alcohol-based rub or soap and water before touching your face mask.
  • Verify which side is the top. Always wear the same side facing outward.
  • Fit the mask covering your mouth and nose ensuring no gaps in between.
  • To avoid contamination, refrain from touching the mask while using it. Wash hands, if you touch the mask.
  • While removing it, use the elastic from the behind without touching the front.
  • After removing it, dispose of the mask immediately in a bin and wash your hands.

India has not experienced the full force of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither are healthcare workers and care-givers in India facing a shortage in the supply of medical masks. Under these circumstances, the prudent approach may be for the general public to wear a mask when in close proximity with others. But it is important to remember that wearing a mask is no substitute for maintaining hand hygiene. And that when you wear a mask, to wear it the right way.

The author is a BA student (Class of 2022) at National School of Journalism and Public Discourse.

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