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It is the most normal thing in the world in Asian countries like Taiwan, South Korea, China and Hong Kong. Austria has followed suit, as has the Czech Republic. And now even Germany is considering making face masks compulsory in public spaces.

Face masks in public have long been ridiculed in the West. They barely if at all make a difference. Some even say that they are harmful. Yet, as has often been the case during this corona crisis, our insights are evolving. All of a sudden there are now more and more medical experts who think that face masks are a good idea. No wonder – when you look at the mortality rates in Asia, which are far lower than in Europe and the US. Meanwhile, economic life over there is getting back to normal more than it is here for us.

Not so much about self-protection, it’s more about protecting others

This revised position is still tentative. It’s primarily aimed at later on, when people will cautiously leave their homes again and go to work. Or go sit at an outdoor café. Face masks may then prove to be of great value in protecting those who haven’t yet been infected with the virus. Especially the elderly and others with poor health.

Prof. Christian Drosten

The virologist Christian Drosten, who by now is famous in Germany – and who was one of the first in Europe to warn that about 60% of the population would get COVID-19 – is one of the proponents of face masks for everyone. The professor attached to the Charité Medical University of Berlin would prefer that ‘as many people as possible wear a face mask.’ According to him, this is not so much about self-protection, it’s more about protecting others. Because if you wear a face mask, you won’t spray any moisture particles on anybody else. He points to a scientific study published last Friday in the science journal Nature.

Robert Koch Institute

The most important German government advisory body, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), updated its advice on face masks last week and now says “If people – even if they have no symptoms – wear a mask as a precaution, it may reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to others.” Nevertheless, there is no scientific evidence for this as yet. Up until now, face masks have been discouraged by the RKI.

Klaus Reinhardt, Chair of the Bundesärztekammer (BAEK, German Medical Association ), advises: “Just do it. Buy a mask, or make one, and wear it in public places. These masks won’t protect you from infection. But they can help to prevent others from becoming infected.

Jena is the first city to follow this advice. Supermarkets and public transport have now introduced this requirement. Meanwhile, Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Söder has signalled where this is headed. He predicts that billions of masks will be needed to combat the virus just in Germany.

Billions of masks in Germany

There is also a plea for face masks in the Lancet medical journal. A group of (mainly Chinese) scientists goes even a step further here. Vulnerable groups should actually use surgical face masks. These are the face masks that are exclusively recommended for medical personnel in Europe. In China almost everyone who has a higher level of risk wears them. The population there is divided into three risk groups: high, medium and low. Its just for the last group that there is no mandatory face mask requirement.

In The Netherlands, the RIVM (the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) still opposes mandatory face masks, even in supermarkets or on public transport. They also express this in a short video clip. According to the RIVM, it is much more effective if people just keep their distance, cough into their elbows and remain indoors as much as possible when they have a cold. “Maybe we’ll change that advice if we enter another phase, but we haven’t got that far yet,” a spokesperson from the RIVM says.

Photo: Alexandra Koch/Pixabay

A false sense of safety, right?

According to her, there’s a danger now that people wearing face masks think that they’re safe, ‘but that’s a false sense of security.’ That’s debatable. For example, the RKI says just the opposite. “A mask can potentially support being aware that you need to keep your distance.”

Another serious concern of the RIVM is that if an advisory is issued in favor of face masks, everyone will rush to the (online) shop to buy masks, which are really only intended for medical personnel. The RIVM contends that there is still a shortage of face masks in the healthcare sector, and this applies not only to the highest quality of face masks, but also to masks with a slightly lower degree of protection.

That may be the case, but The Netherlands must not shy away from the reality of the rest of the world. Several media outlets have reported that the World Health Organization (WHO) is in the process of reconsidering its advice on face masks.

US is in need of sufficient masks

The same applies to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It is expected that there will be more and more places in the US where face masks will be strongly recommended. The White House’s chief health advisor, Anthony Fauci, says that “as soon as there are enough masks, then it’ll be time to tighten up the guidelines for them.”

In Asia, they’re probably thinking: better late than never. Ivan Hung, a specialist in lung disease at Hong Kong University School of Medicine, told the CNN news channel: If you look at the data in Hong Kong, wearing face protection is probably the single most important measure you can take against the virus”.

It’s not just effective against corona, he says. At the same time you also have fewer people with the common flu. “We’re in the middle of the flu season in Hong Kong right now, but hardly anyone has it.”

What kinds of face masks are there?

Face masks come in many shapes and sizes. The medical ones that are manufactured in a factory can be divided into three categories: FFP 1, 2 and 3. They are all made up of multiple layers of paper or fabric.

  • FFP 1 protects against fine particles and blocks your own breath. This is the type of mask that would be suitable for general use.
  • FFP 2 protects against viruses. It is intended more for care workers.
  • FFP 3 are the best masks for surgeons and people who work in direct contact with corona patients.

People who make their own masks from fabric are advised to iron them thoroughly with a hot iron. This kills the viruses.