Should I wear a face mask?

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A group of about 30 doctors and health experts recently called on the Quebec government to make wearing masks mandatory for people over 12 years-old in closed and crowded public spaces. The question remains, Should I wear a face mask?

The experts believe the measure would help limit the number of COVID-19 infections and avoid a potential second wave of cases. We need that to gain our freedom, to be able to find a part of our normal lives, the activities we love, the people we love, said Amir Khadir, a microbiologist, infectious disease specialist, and former member of Quebec’s National Assembly. However, making it mandatory to wear a mask in public goes too far and is liable to spark a backlash. 

Should I wear a face mask

There is nothing wrong with individuals making a voluntary choice to wear a mask for a specific time-limited purpose. Masks provide an extra layer of protection when social distancing isn’t possible. Canada’s chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam “recommends” that people wear a mask when it isn’t physically possible to distance: for example, in a crowded subway station or a medical setting where COVID-19 may be occurring. Masks may also provide a feeling of security for those who are skittish about going out in public particularly if they haven’t left the house during the lockdown. There is even a fashion component and lots of mask-making pandemic start-ups are providing a source of welcome income for people who would otherwise be out of work. However, Dr. Tam has never insisted that anyone wears a mask precisely because she has no right to do so and, neither does any other health professional. 

Should I wear a face mask? Well there are a couple of things wrong with the whole idea of mandatory masks. First, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms hasn’t been suspended. “Freedom of expression” is a fundamental right pertaining to what a person wears, as well as speech. In other words, these kinds of edicts are meaningless and unenforceable. There is also no compelling scientific reason for anyone to wear a mask in wide-open spaces. The World Health Organization published a report at the end of March saying that the coronavirus isn’t airborne but rather is transmitted through close contact and respiratory droplets. Despite this statement from the world’s leading health organization some health experts and the public officials who rely on their advice still aren’t convinced.

In its report on March 29, 2020, The WHO had this to say: “In an analysis of 75,465 COVID-19 cases in China, airborne transmission was not reported.” The report highlights the same advice that Dr.Tam has been giving Canadians all along. “Finally, WHO continues to emphasize the utmost importance of frequent hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette, and environmental cleaning and disinfection, as well as the importance of maintaining physical distances and avoidance of close, unprotected contact with people with fever or respiratory symptoms.” 

In regards to airborne precautions, the WHO advisory is addressed to healthcare workers in a medical setting, not the general public, an important distinction. “Current WHO recommendations emphasize the importance of rational and appropriate use of all PPE, not only masks, which requires correct and rigorous behaviour from health care workers.” The WHO report also cautions the public from reading too much into media reportage about airborne transmission seeing as it is based on experimental research that takes place “under controlled laboratory conditions” that “don’t reflect normal human cough conditions.”

The purported reason for wearing a mask in public is to prevent the possible transmission of COVID-19 by asymptomatic carriers. Asymptomatic carriers play a critical role in the transmission of common infectious diseases such as typhoid, C. difficile, influenzas, cholera, COVID-19, tuberculosis, and HIV. If preventing the transmission of disease by asymptomatic carriers is the goal, then everyone should wear a mask, cover-up, wear latex gloves, and keep a wide berth from others at all times. 

Obviously, this approach is untenable, or at least it was before COVID-19 hit. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, excessive fear of germs was considered a mental illness, but now hypervigilant COVID-19 prevention is the “new normal”. People who won’t get with the program are viewed as anti-social outliers. Hence the tough talk about mandatory measures. However, if wearing a mask is so important, why weren’t public health authorities advising people to wear a mask at the height of the pandemic?
The government has a responsibility to inform the public of health risks and recommend appropriate preventative measures but not to dictate the actions of citizens. Consenting adults have a legal right to determine their own safety level. Certainly, no employer or service provider has the right to demand that their employees or customers wear a mask but they are doing just that. Since some stores opened, customers have been hearing complaints from retail employees who must wear a mask all day and are having difficulty breathing. These are really pleas for help. Patients in waiting rooms in hospitals are experiencing the same problem. No one should be put at risk in this way. 

How long are we going to wait before someone has a life-threatening respiratory event caused by protracted wearing of a commercial mask or homemade face covering?  Doctors and nurses wear medical-grade masks that allow them to breathe properly but the public doesn’t have access to this type of PPE. Insisting that individuals wear a mask for several hours at a time is inhumane and irresponsible. This is especially true where younger children are concerned. However, youth over 12 who engage in vigorous sports or rough horseplay might potentially suffocate or choke on their masks.

Unfortunately, reason has gone out the window. People have been terrified by media horror stories of deaths occurring in ICUs and graphic images of bodies piled up outside funeral parlours. First responders who have been at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 are burned out and fear a second wave. Death has always been ugly but it was never so conspicuously on display as it has been since the outbreak of coronavirus nor were there daily statistics of cases and fatalities from infectious diseases as there has been with COVID-19. The 1968 influenza pandemic known as the Hong Kong Flu killed an estimated one million people, more than double the number of deaths from coronavirus so far, yet life went on as usual. 

John Lennon and Yoko Ono held court over the media frenzy in their crowded suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal where their famous Bed-In for Peace took place

How previous generations handled outbreaks of disease ought to be instructive. The late 60s were a tumultuous time. Demonstrations against the Vietnam War continued unabated until January 1973. The streets were full of shoppers and office workers. Downtown, nightlife was in full swing and Expo 67 had been repurposed as Man and His World. Between May 26 and June 2, 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono held court over the media frenzy in their crowded suite at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal where their famous Bed-In for Peace took place. Sonny and Cher’s hit song, “The Beat Goes On” released in 1967 captured the zeitgeist of those heady times. Nobody missed a beat because of the Hong Kong Flu.     

Ditto, for the response to the Asian Flu, a decade earlier. It resulted in a staggering death toll of 1.5-2 million between 1957-1958. Nobody in the post-war organizational culture of the 1950s would have dreamed of missing work or school for months on end because of any virus, however deadly. The talk now is to wait it out until there is a vaccine for COVID-19 before things can get back to normal. Various experts estimate that it will take between 18 months to 2 years before a vaccine is developed, the time-frame being proposed for mandatory masks.

Does anyone remember AIDS? The global HIV pandemic has been going on for 40 years. An estimated 36 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. There is no vaccine for the HIV virus but this fact hasn’t provided a rationale to shut down society. There is also the little matter of the growing tribe of anti-vax parents who are loathed to vaccinate their children while some people never get a flu shot. Are mandatory vaccines the next step on the road to overreach in public healthcare? All the indicators are that COVID-19 is fast becoming a pretext for government intrusion into the lives of private citizens.  Why have things changed so drastically and seemingly overnight because of COVID-19? For one thing, there is an entire industry of healthcare providers who see it as their job to manage healthcare rather than diagnose and treat illness. This crisis is unfolding outside the parameters of patients’ rights. The focus is on broad public health measures rather than doctor-patient confidentiality. There is a democratic vacuum in decision-making at the best of times and Parliament has barely functioned during the COVID-19 lockdown. Perhaps politicians who are collecting the CERB are only too happy to cede their responsibility to civil servants rather than consult the electorate which is their sworn duty.

Attempts by experts to micro-manage all possible scenarios in the fight against COVID-19 may backfire derailing the economic relaunch. Many people may simply decide to ride it out, postponing the return to full-time work and school. In the absence of readily available services, and with multiple restrictions to contend with, it might not be worth it. Many families will doubtless find their own creative solutions – budget down, support local, stay close to home, and keep it simple. People have already had several months of practice of doing without. 

Please let us know your thoughts on: Should I wear a face mask?

By: Deborah Rankin – [email protected]

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