The simple answer is no. But should you wear them? Absolutely
We have all probably heard this question a lot of times: in the news, from our family members, friends, entitled protectors of the freedom of movement and slavery constructivists (though in that case, the question would be followed by a blatant ‘No!’), and whatnot. This article analyses this question from scientific, as well as social points of view.
While governments and the Word Health Organisation unanimously agree that carriers, patients, medical personnel, and health-care workers should wear face masks to prevent further spread of the deadly virus, world governments disagree with each other on the community use of facemasks. This disagreement stems from the limited supply of surgical and N-95 masks, which are in dire shortage even for medical personnel.
But let us just consider the average citizen here. You and your family are in lockdown, facing the consequences of limited mobility, mindblown by all the stuff that is going on in the world right now. Next time you go out to do something necessary, should you wear a facemask?
The situation gets complicated when the virus we are dealing with is SARS-CoV-2. On average, a person with the Covid-19 virus does not show symptoms for 5-6 days upon catching it, with some leading up to 14 days. Others could carry very mild symptoms, while some reports suggest that people can have no symptoms of the disease yet can transmit it to another.
In short, we cannot be sure if one has the disease upon exposure without tests. But for the sake of it, let us assume that we are all healthy. Should we still wear masks?
To answer this, we must understand how the virus is transmitted. One way is by touching a surface with viable viral quantities and then touching a delicate part of your body, like your face. This is called fomite transmission. Studies have shown it to be a viable method to sustain transmission. This is the reason why the WHO has recommended hand hygiene as a bulwark against the pandemic, as it is a close-to-sure-shot (if not absolutely sure-shot) method of disinfecting your hands.
Another method of transmission is through direct transmission, when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even talks to you in proximity. Even transmission from hand-to-hand contact comes under this method. This is where social distancing and face masks come in. Distancing would take out the proximity issue, as there is only so much distance that splashes can travel, and face masks protect you from bigger splashes.
But the bigger issue is aerosols, which are basically long-traveling droplets that vaporize and remain in the air. We do not completely understand how infectious this is for the average person, but consensus exists that frontline medical personnel and health care workers face a threat from aerosols. This is due to the high number of patients in hospitals and wards, which can increase the chances of aerosol transmission.
If you are a normal person going to the supermarket or walking your dog while practicing social distancing, the threat from fomites is much higher than the same from aerosols, assuming that these activities do not happen in a crowded environment. But there is a key point in all the statements mentioned above: masks prevent stuff from going out, but we do not know how much they let stuff in.
The scientific community is split on this issue. Airflow follows the path of least resistance. Studies have shown that masks (of whatever kind) do not provide complete protection, as particles can move around the side. However, the scientific community believes that this would highly depend on the type of virus and other situations. In the case of fabric masks, the particles can directly travel through the fabric pores and into your system.
So, what is the bottom line? Should we wear facemasks when going out?
Oh, we absolutely should. But no, not just the masks.
Enter: The Golden Triad, the bane to Covid-19.
Vox media beautifully depicted this as the triangular protection grid against Covid-19. Face masks do no good if they are not practiced along with social distancing and frequent handwashing. Cloth masks are still suggested despite its limited abilities in preventing direct transmission, as it still protects us from some of the more extreme consequences of direct contact. If you are not in close proximity to another person, and the person was to cough, sneeze, or talk, the cloth mask would still help out in some way.
But why do I say cloth masks? Because surgical and N-95 masks are in short supply. There are people at much higher risk facing the low supply of these masks. This is the reason why many governments have not advised people to buy surgical or N-95 masks.
As mentioned, fabric masks are no license to ignore social distancing norms, as they are both complementary, like yin and yang. At the community level, a person needs both. Put in handwashing with the duo, and you have your Covid-19 Golden Triad. This is the best way for a citizen to go about their necessary outdoor activities without spreading the disease and putting pressure on governments who already have more than enough on their plate.
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I say things as it is. Or at least as I feel it is.