Coronavirus

Face masks: when science trumps politics

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Up until a few weeks ago, you could split the world into three groups: countries which willingly accepted face masks, those who were not too certain of it, and the countries who didn’t like the idea at all. 

However, the lines separating those groups are now blurring, and it seems as if most people are growing to the idea of wearing a face mask. In my opinion, it seems like this is one occasion when science ultimately trumps politics – if the scientific needs are clear, even the most unexpected politician will change their mind.

For me, there is no doubt that face masks play an important part in controlling the coronavirus outbreak. Scientifically, it all stacks up. They carry out a role referred to as “source control” – that means droplets are prevented from spreading from one person to another. It’s possible to be infected with COVID-19 and be asymptomatic, and so by wearing a mask, you’re not unknowingly passing the virus to others. 

One reason for Japan’s surprisingly low death and transmission rate, despite having an elderly population, maybe due to the popular custom of wearing face masks. Japanese people began wearing face masks more than 100 years ago during the 1918 flu pandemic, commonly known as the ‘Spanish flu’, and they’ve never really stopped wearing them since.

Professor Keiji Fukuda, an influenza specialist and director of the School of Public Health at Hong Kong University, argued that a mask “acts as a physical barrier. But it also serves as a reminder to everybody to be mindful. That we still have to be careful around each other”

This might beg the question, why would anyone not want to wear a face mask? Surely by wearing one you’re fulfilling the social responsibility to protect others? 

In a pandemic such as this one, the current structure of our society means that everyone’s choices will influence one another. If wearing a face-mask could potentially save lives and control the rate of transmission then surely it’s worth the little discomfort that comes with it. If our healthcare workers can wear PPE in stifling conditions for hours on end why can’t we wear one in Tesco?

Not surprisingly, face masks have become a catalyst for political conflict. In certain parts of the world, there had been refusal to wear a mask and dismissal at the suggestion of wearing one. 

The United States is a key example. A country with rocketing coronavirus cases and harsh political divides meant that many people have decided not to wear a mask. Their reasons are questionable to some – the idea of keeping hold of your freedom and not being “muzzled” by the state is an excuse which has proven to be popular.

What fuelled the debate was Donald Trump, who has now adapted his way of tackling the issue, had previously appeared unenthused about the suggestion. Speaking about the freshly issued guidelines, he declared: “This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.” 

For the Trump supporters, his remarks on masks energised them not to wear one themselves. Their reluctance on face masks prove the political significance of wearing one – whilst some consider it a public duty, others feel it to be an infringement of political liberties. 

However, in the wake of more than a million coronavirus cases in the US, even the President has started wearing a mask, now saying that he thinks “it’s great to wear a mask.” Of course, he hasn’t been clear if he agrees with the science behind wearing masks or not, but at least we now know that he’s up for wearing one. 

Despite the politicisation of the humble face covering, many political leaders have been pushed to make them mandatory in a bid to control the virus. Clearly, for some countries this is a time of great dramatic irony – the same politicians in France who banned religious face coverings in public are now fining those who don’t wear one. 

In Britain, the Prime Minister, a man who has previously likened those who wear religious face coverings to ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letterboxes’, is now making the country wear them in shops. It’s unlikely that most people will be subjected to any suspicious looks and hurtful comments whilst covering their face because for once, the rest of the country will be too. 

The science has now pushed our politicians to accept face masks as the new normal, even if they never wanted to. For us, it’s a stark reminder that whilst sometimes it may seem as if politics is ignoring science, on this occasion, it can be said that science has trumped politics.

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