Over the past few days, health authorities in both Malta and abroad have been facing increasing calls to impose the mandatory wearing of masks in public in order to try to curb the spread of COVID-19, despite the lack of official guidance from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to do so.

Is the measure warranted and should Malta just go ahead and implement it?

It is in the culture of some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, for people to wear surgical masks in public.

This is not to protect themselves from disease, or pollution, as many westerners think, but out of respect for their neighbours.

They want to avoid transmitting any common viral illness they may be suffering from at the time.

Despite being exposed to imported transmission very early on in the pandemic, these countries have suffered relatively fewer COVID-19 cases than other major countries.

This may also be attributable to other good practices but wearing masks may certainly have something to do with it. Top infectious disease and epidemic experts in the East have in recent interviews expressed conviction that the mask-for-all practice prevents spread to a significant degree.

In Malta, as in many other Western countries, it is not in our culture. People feel embarrassed, uncomfortable and simply claustrophobic wearing a mask. However, if everyone is doing it, the common experience should overcome those obstacles.

There are generally two types of masks, those that protect the wearer from contamination and those that stop the wearer transmitting disease.

The former mask, the now famous N95 grade masks, are expensive, increasingly difficult to find and, according to medical advice, would do more harm than good if not worn and handled properly.

This means they should be reserved exclusively for people working in a high-risk environment, such as healthcare workers.

The other type of mask is the simple surgical variety or a well-made homemade one. Both can act as a barrier to infectious droplets being sprayed into the air by the person talking, coughing or sneezing.

Mass usage of such masks would not completely stop the spread of COVID-19 but scientific evidence is building that it would reduce transmission and reinforce social distancing measures.

There are two things to consider.

Firstly, do the Maltese health authorities wait for WHO to give the go-ahead or does the country go its own way?

WHO, unfortunately, has all too often been reactive in this crisis rather than proactive. Some European countries, such as the Czech Republic, have already taken the decision, and there are claims it is working.

Given the urgent need of containing the spread of COVID-19, our Superintendent of Public Health would be well advised to look at the evidence from countries where mask-wearing is the norm, or has become mandatory, rather than wait for a protocol from an unwieldily organisation that has to take into consideration the resources and capabilities of all countries.

However, if the health authorities do take the step and enforce mask wearing on a mass scale, thee masks would have to be made available.

Thousands of people are stuck at home. A national project of home manufacture, guided by online tutorials, would help solve that issue. Those tutorials would also guide users on proper disposal and cleaning, to ensure benefit, not harm, results from the practice.

This has been done in the Czech Republic. It is certainly not beyond Malta to do the same.

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