Pandemic fatigue has already set in. After reeling under the onslaught of the virus for more than nine months, the weariness is quite visible. It is evident now that people are letting their guards down and becoming a little less frugal when it comes to taking up safety precautions. This is no good sign. People are tired and a little fed up of the extended isolations and quarantines. The general mood now is – virus or no virus, life has to continue and things should get back to normal. The onslaught of the virus is such that there have been setbacks on all counts and on every facet of life. Unlocking process is being implemented phase-wise even while the rate of spread of infection is increasing exponentially. The rate of infections is continuing to climb, we are yet to see the peak, and the pandemic is still far from over. It’s been predicted that it’s some more months before the infections wane and the pandemic comes to an end.
To add to this woe, there is no effective vaccine yet in the immediate future. If it comes, it will be by early part of next year (as reported). Although there are talks of many vaccine candidates, the trial phases are still on and it cannot be concretely said when the vaccine will be ready. Even after we get the vaccine, again it will take some more time for the majority of the population to get vaccinated. Plus there is still the question of the efficacy of the vaccine. So the fear of the virus is still lurking. Thus, nothing is definite at the moment. Humankind is still in the process of learning the nature and behaviour of this novel virus and also how humans are responding to it.
In this meanwhile, we still have to rely on measures like hand-washing, using sanitizers, avoiding touching of face and nose repeatedly, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces, maintaining physical distances, avoiding closed and crowded spaces, and last but not the least wearing face masks whenever and wherever necessary, more so if we are to be amongst people, be in closed spaces or crowded areas.
WHO and public health authorities have recommended wearing of face masks from the initial phase itself to control the spread of coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Masks are primarily intended to stop droplets, sprays, and splatters, and studies have shown that if masks are worn diligently, more so in public spaces, spread of respiratory infection can reduce significantly.
The last week my thoughts have revolved around this humble piece of material (or cloth) that we call the “face mask.” I would like to share a few of what I’ve had in mind and certain insights that I have collected in the last few days.
The other day I had to accompany my father to the hospital for a dental procedure which had been long overdue. The procedure got postponed because of the corona crisis, as we thought it was best to avoid the hospital for the time being, but the condition deteriorated further and it was not advisable anymore that the procedure be further deferred. So it had to be done.
I realized we didn’t have the proper masks for a visit to the hospital. I felt for a hospital setting, something like the N95 masks are the best. The surgical ones are good too but felt the ones made out of cloth would not be appropriate enough for the hospital environment. So we bought the N95 masks for the hospital trip and wore them.
Lockdowns for the last few months meant virtual isolations and almost no contact or very limited contact with people. We only go out rarely for essential supplies and unavoidable chores. For these, I have managed with some surgical ones and a few layered-cloth masks that I got stitched long time back to avoid allergens. These were just lying unused in some corner in the cupboard. This time around, they got utilized.
Surgical masks are quite effective in filtering out viral particles, but after wearing it for a while it gets stuffy and sweaty, and thus people tend to get fidgety around these masks. Touching the masks repeatedly increases the chances of infection rather than preventing it. Hence, I feel the choice of a proper mask is essential as it should be effective as well as comfortable. After all, masks have become a necessity and an essential accessory. As the virus is going to be with us for a while, we need to be well adjusted to this new way of living. They are going to be very much a part of our new way of life. Priorly, we may not be so used to wearing it, but we need to cultivate this habit and be comfortable doing so.
It has been reported that during this COVID-19 crisis some Asian countries have done commendably well in the containment of the virus. This has been attributed, in part, to their already existing culture of wearing masks even before the COVID-19 pandemic as these regions had faced prior outbreaks of respiratory viruses like the SARS, MERS, and others. Wearing masks at most times is normal for people around these regions. As for us, we’re not used to it. But from now on, we have to cultivate the habit of wearing masks and make it our way of life too. This habitual transition shouldn’t take long. With global warming and other changes happening in the environment, scientists have predicted that we may have to face many more respiratory viruses and pathogens in the future. To be on the safer side, it’s advisable that we cultivate this habit and be prepared beforehand.
There are a variety of masks available in the market. If we have the expertise, we can even make some ourselves. The logic is to cover our mouth and nose with a piece of material that has the capacity to filter out harmful particles, dust, and pathogens including viral particles. The most common ones available are cloth masks, surgical masks, N95 masks, and some type of respirators.
The last week I did some hunting for masks online as it’s a difficult affair to go out and look for appropriate masks that suit my purpose. There are varieties out there from cloth masks with different patterns and colors to surgical masks to N95s and respirators. The online sites are full of them. It looks like a lot of people are trying to tap into this potential market. I concluded masks must be the hottest selling product as of now. I picked out a few and placed an order for them. Then I will be making the choice which one to wear when depending on the situation. N95s and surgical masks are meant to be disposed off after using for a time. One advantage of cloth masks is that it can be washed and reused.
When it comes to effectiveness regarding shielding off of foreign particles including viruses, N95s are the best followed by surgical masks and last comes the humble cloth masks, but when it comes to comfort level and reusability, the cloth one wins.
So whatever the type, let us all make it a habit that we don a mask to make ourselves and others safe from the respiratory viruses. Something is always better than nothing.
Furthermore, there is a hypothesis that is making the rounds among the scientific community which says that due to the wearing of masks, people may be exposed to only a few number of viruses i.e., a low viral load. Because of this, there is a potential of developing immunity against the virus without actually having the disease, somewhat similar to a process called variolation. Practised before smallpox vaccine was found, variolation is a process of deliberate inoculation of an uninfected person with the smallpox virus via contact with pustular material to achieve immunity against the severe form of the disease. This was practised as a prophylaxis to avoid the severe form of smallpox.
Summing up, donning masks definitely have multiple benefits in today’s times with the viruses and environmental pollution. It is also observed that there is less reportage of other respiratory-related diseases following the mass-masking exercise after COVID-19 crisis. Barring the little discomfort, donning the mask is always advantageous and is helpful in so many ways. This should be practiced in conjunction with the other aforementioned precautionary measures. We know the drill. So let’s make our choice and make a statement. A mask says a lot about the person who wears it; it even says more about the person who doesn’t wear it. Let’s make the right choice.