The advice given by four medical practitioners in Singapore encouraging the public to wear face masks outside the home to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is “useless”, says former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng.
In a Facebook post on Wed (12 Feb), Mr Cheng questioned the doctors’ recommendation for members of the public to wear a mask at all times as a means of establishing a double-barrier against those who are ill, as opposed to only relying on the single-barrier protection from having only the unwell wear masks.
“Yes, two barriers are better than one. But three barriers are better than two, four better than three. So why not wear 2 masks each? Why not wear goggles at all times also since droplets can also enter through eyes?
“In fact, whilst at it why not erect a sterile tent at home and just stay there? That’s the safest,” said Mr Cheng.
Mr Cheng stressed that it is crucial to “balance individual risks against societal costs”, the former being “[v]ery low for most people who are not healthcare or frontline service staff”.
He said that practicing “good hand hygiene” is a better precautionary measure for the public to take, as “the primary modes of transmission are droplets and contact”.
Mr Cheng argued that the societal risks of the public wearing masks at all times as suggested by the four doctors, in comparison, are greater.
He reasoned that this is because “healthcare professionals who really need masks are running out”, as seen in China.
“And they have their own mask factories. We don’t,” said Mr Cheng.
“These doctors giving useless advice, and the people circulating them, are thus not helping.
“In fact, they are making things worse by not educating people properly about risks vs costs,” he said.
In the letter titled “Health advisory from senior medical practitioners to Singaporeans”, the practitioners highlighted how “things are not so straightforward” with the Covid-19 as it was with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARs) coronavirus outbreak in 2003.
“We are advising everyone to wear a mask always when leaving home. If one faces a person and both parties are masked, it is considerably safer, constituting a 2 barrier protection,” the letter read.
The practitioners acknowledge that while it “may not possible for everyone to get a new surgical mask everyday”, members of the public “need to find creative solutions”.
“Some people have purchased washable cloth masks, sewed them, constructed them with suitable paper, or tied a scarf to the face. These measures are better than no mask at all,” the practitioners noted.
Several netizens criticised Mr Cheng’s statement regarding the four doctors’ advisory, stating that there is nothing wrong with wanting to taking all the measures necessary to protect oneself from the COVID-19 spread, particularly in areas where large crowds of people are expected such as in buses and trains:
There were also netizens who agreed with Mr Cheng’s argument, stating that the Government’s move to cap the distribution of face masks — at four pieces per household — is a sensible way to ensure adequate supply for frontline medical staff, namely those who are directly in contact with those infected with COVID-19:
Several netizens pointed out Mr Cheng’s professional background in the modelling industry — currently he serves as Executive Director for Lumina Live, Looque Models and Juice Magazine — and questioned his credibility in making such a statement regarding the four medical practitioners’ advice:
Infectious diseases specialist and chairman of the Singapore Democratic Party Paul Tambyah told The Straits Times in an interview earlier this month that a face mask “actually prevents or reduces the amount of virus you’re going to shed”.
“But ultimately, you shouldn’t be walking around town if you’re sick because when the mask gets wet, it loses its efficacy. So ideally, you should put on a mask, go see a doctor and then get treated,” he said.
Dr Tambyah added that the reason why even healthy people wear masks is that “they are not sure that people who are going to be sick are going to be staying at home”.
“And I think that is the message that needs to get across, you see? If you are sick, you shouldn’t go to the office, you shouldn’t take the MRT, you should get yourself evaluated. You should put on a mask, go and get yourself evaluated by your doctor,” he stressed, adding that if everybody takes such precautions, there will be no need for healthy people to wear masks.