Analysis: How important are face masks in protecting us from COVID-19?

Analysis: How important are face masks in protecting us from COVID-19?
Copyright Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse
Copyright Marco Alpozzi/LaPresse
By Darren McCaffrey, Political Editor
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Who to trust? Who to believe? Well, ultimately when in doubt European governments seem to be taking (rather sensibly) a 'better safe than sorry' approach, writes Darren McCaffrey.


The United States is currently the global epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic. More than 70,000 Americans have now perished - some people are predicting that number could double. 

Many of the same issues about access to ventilators and Personal Protective Equipment have dogged the federal government in Washington, DC, as they have done in many European capitals. 

So, to signal that he and his administration are getting to grips with shortages, President Trump got on Air Force One yesterday and flew to Arizona, where he visited a factory in Honeyball, which manufactures N95 masks.

Across cable news and on social media, though, the focus of speculation was on whether Donald Trump would wear a mask. Despite advice - from his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - that people should wear one in public, President Trump has consistently said it’s not for him. So, entirely unsurprisingly, he didn’t.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the science of face masks has been pretty divided, the World Health Organization still maintains that masks should be reserved for healthcare workers and people who are sick, coughing or sneezing, or caring for people with COVID-19. 

Why are they not recommended for general use? Well, the WHO argues masks can be contaminated by other people's coughs and sneezes, or when they are put on or removed and when combined with frequent hand-washing. Indeed, it says frequent hand-washing and social distancing are the most-effective strategies and concerns have been expressed that face masks might offer a false sense of security.

But, the political positioning in Europe is moving towards making covering your face and mouth mandatory - particularly on public transport and in crowded places.

On Monday, fabric shops were allowed to open here in Brussels - ahead of most other non-essential shops - so that people could make their own face masks. Supermarkets and vending machines are now also stocking them at cost price. Yesterday, as I went to my local supermarket, it was noticeable how many are now wearing one - a majority of people I would say.

And while lots of people still quote the WHO advice, others point to studies suggesting face masks can save lives. In recent days, Arizona State University scientists claimed that if 80 per cent of people wore one, it could reduce mortality somewhere between 24 to 65 per cent. A British Medical Journal Article in early April suggested that masks “could have a substantial impact on transmission, with a relatively small impact on social and economic life”.

Who to trust? Who to believe? Well, ultimately when in doubt European governments seem to be taking (rather sensibly) a "better safe than sorry" approach. At the beginning of the crisis, when they couldn’t guarantee masks for those working in the health professions, governments were reluctant to recommend universal us, for fear of shortages. Now that supplies are stable, that advice can be extended. Even if the science is not conclusive and the impact marginal.

But something else is at play here. And it’s fear. After weeks and weeks of lockdown and still relatively high infection rates, many people don’t want to risk their health. In the UK, a poll conducted in the past week suggested 67 per cent of people would feel uncomfortable using public transport once the lockdown is lifted. That’s quite worrying if you are trying to get people back to work.

So, it seems governments are also advising us to wear face masks; not just because they might protect our health (and they might) but also because they’ve concluded it will make us feel safer as we try to get back to a sense of normality. Boris Johnson summed it up, upon returning to work himself. He said: “What I certainly agree with is that, as part of coming out of the lockdown, I do think face coverings will be useful, both for epidemiological reasons but also giving people the confidence they can go back to work.”

It seems like much of Europe is on the same page.

Darren McCaffrey is Euronews' political editor.

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