US Professor explains why the message of not needing masks backfired

US Professor explains why the message of not needing masks backfired

On Tuesday (17 March), The New York Times published an opinion piece by Dr Zeynap Tufekci, a Professor from the University of North Carolina and author of “Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest”. The 1,297-word story by the Professor chastised the US authorities on their message that people do not have to wear masks, which eventually backfired.

According to Dr Tufekci, many health experts, including the Surgeon General of the US, advised the public that masks are not necessary for protection and that the health care workers need it more for their nature of work. This advice was given following the dwindling supply situation.

The Professor pointed out that this narrative contradicts and confuses the audience.

She explained, “How do these masks magically protect the wearers only and only if they work in a particular field?”

To add credibility to the message, attempts were made by the US authorities to bolster it by saying that ordinary people do not need masks, especially medical-grade respirator masks.

The US authorities added that these masks are referred to as N95 masks and require proper fitting. However, ordinary people would not benefit from using the masks as they are unaware of the right fitting techniques.

She also pointed out that this message was indeed a counterproductive approach. This is because when you tell people that something works only if done correctly, they would often think that they are doing right, even though they’re actually doing it incorrectly.

The Professor also clarified that masks work to some extent, though not perfectly and not to the same degree, but they do provide some protection. The usage of masks is part of a standard response to being around infected people, especially, for those who are more vulnerable.

Apropos, the World Health Organization (WHO) officials had also seen adorning masks during their news briefings.

The argument for concise information on masks

However, the Professor acknowledged that it is true that masks do not work perfectly and therefore they do not replace hand-washing and social distancing. Moreover, the added positive would be that masks would work better if they are fitted properly.

On the other hand, surgical masks (the disposable type that surgeons wear) filters out small viral particles the way medical-grade respirator masks rated N95 and above do.

Therefore, Dr Tufekci argued that wearing even surgical masks do protect a bit more than not wearing masks at all. Research on flu also revealed that mask wearing can help to reduce transmission rates, along with frequent hand washing and social distancing.

In addition, she also highlighted that WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had advised the public to wear masks if they were sick.

However, the transmission of this virus can be asymptomatic as younger people with milder cases do not necessarily show the symptoms of the illness, although they can be sick and infectious.

Therefore, the Professor argued that since WHO and CDC advocate that masks lessen the chances of infected people infecting others, then everyone should use masks.

On this score, she commended Hong Kong and Taiwanese authorities who took immediate action of imposing social distancing requirements and encouraging everyone to wear masks. By doing so, the Professor added, they have brought the pandemic under greater control.

Given the above, Professor Tufekci synthesised that the very act of wearing masks in daily life indicates that it is not “business as usual”. The Professor reiterates that pandemics require a change in behaviour and this encompasses all aspects of  socialisation, personal hygiene, and work etiquette in order to ensure that all citizens are on board in combating the virus.

The Professor concluded by saying, “Research shows that during disasters, people can show strikingly altruistic behaviour, but interventions by authorities can backfire if they fuel mistrust or treat the public as an adversary rather than people who will step up if treated with respect.”

She added, “Given that even homemade masks may work better than no masks, wearing them might be something to direct people to do while they stay at home more, as we all should.”

Singaporean medical experts have foretold the importance of wearing masks

In a similar vein, last month, four medical practitioners in Singapore  came together to sign a letter, advising people to wear face masks when they leave home to avoid contacting the Covid-19 virus.

The letter entitled, “Health advisory from Senior Medical Practitioners to Singaporeans,” explained how “things are not so straightforward” with Covid-19 as it was with the Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARs)  in 2003.

Revisited now, the contents of the letter from the doctors reveal the following. “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 two barrier protection. It may not possible for everyone to get a new surgical mask everyday. We 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.”

To date, there are over 200,097 cases of infection world-wide and over 8,010 deaths. Currently, Singapore has reported  266 cases of confirmed infection with 114 of them having recovered from the deadly virus.

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