By Julius Spencer
During the Press Briefing where the 3-days lockdown was announced, it was also announced that all government officials in all government buildings and all visitors to those offices should from a certain date use masks while in these premises. Members of the public were also advised to use masks in public.
The advice to the public in relation to use of masks was repeated in the most recent press release signed by the Deputy Minister of Information. While this is commendable, I don’t believe it goes far enough. I believe government should now make the use of masks mandatory for everyone in all public spaces and in public transportation, and here’s why.
I has been established that, unlike what was earlier believed, the SARS Cov-2 virus can be spread by asymptomatic people (people with no signs or symptoms). It is also suspected that the virus can be spread when an infected person breaths or talks and not only while coughing or sneezing. To make matters worse, it is also now believed that the virus can remain in the air in extremely minute droplets for longer than was originally thought to be the case.
Despite all this new information, WHO still advises that only people who are sick should use masks. This advice is based on a concern that N95 masks, which are the masks known to be very effective in protecting against virus infection, should be reserved for front-line health workers. It is also based on the fear that if not used properly, the individual may end up infecting himself/herself.
The Centres for Disease Control (CDC) in the United States, on the other hand, is now asking everyone to use masks in public spaces, partly because there are indications that the use of masks is partly responsible for the relatively low infection rate in Asia as compared to Europe and the USA. The new advice is also a reaction to the new information now available about the behaviour of the virus.
Prior to the call for use of masks as an additional measure, efforts to control the spread of the virus were focussed on effective hand washing, avoidance of touching the face, social distancing plus effective contact tracing and isolation. While some of these measures may not be so difficult to achieve in the western world, social distancing is one measure that is virtually impossible to achieve in most of our communities. Even effective hand washing is a challenge because clean water is a luxury in many communities in Sierra Leone.
As a friend of mine is wont to say, we in this part of the world should not follow the herd mentality by doing what governments in the West are doing. In other words, we need to think outside the box and adapt the measures to suit our own physical and cultural situation.
A South African intellectual warned a while ago about the dangers of imposing a lockdown in African countries, when the South African government announced a lockdown. He warned that the majority of South Africans will not be able to survive such a situation, because they eke out their living on a day to day basis and the level of poverty is such that people not only won’t be able to stock up food, they will not have the financial capacity to do so. He warned that if we are not careful in Africa with lockdowns, we may end up causing the deaths of many children and young people with no underlying health conditions as against the category of people that current data suggests is more at risk of being killed by the virus, namely the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions.
Well that writer has been proved to be correct, because it seems there has been a revolt by people in South Africa who are now defying the lockdown and are looting shops and confronting the security forces. Apparently, what has happened is that the people became so desperate that the possibility of being arrested or even killed by the security forces became less daunting, when compared to what they had to endure during the lockdown.
The situation in Sierra Leone, particularly in urban centres is the same. Most people earn their living on a daily basis, live in crowded accommodation, don’t have running water in their houses and cannot afford to stock food.
To me therefore, the use of masks is the answer to the dilemma we face. If everyone uses some kind of covering for the nose and mouth when in public, coupled with the hand washing, avoidance of touching and crowded spaces, it will certainly limit the spread of the virus. If as it is now believed, the virus can be emitted into the air by people who show no symptoms, as well as when an infected person is talking and breathing, then if everyone is wearing a mask, no matter how inefficient, the amount of viruses emitted into the air will be reduced and the possibility for the virus to enter the nose or mouth of an uninfected person will also be reduced.
I know the argument about an individual infecting himself/herself through improper handling of the mask will be raised, but I will simply say that won’t matter. It won’t matter because if the person has the virus on his/her mask and ends up infecting himself/herself through improper handling, then the person would have been infected anyway, since without the mask, he/or she would have been infected directly by the virus which would have landed directly on the person’s face instead of on the mask.
Currently, masks are being sold on the streets for about Le5,000. Some of these are single use masks. Those who can afford can buy them or alternatively people can make their own reusable masks. There are manuals available on how to make such masks on the CDC website. And in fact you can even cover your nose and mouth with a head tie or scarf. The principle is that anything is better than nothing. While these reusable home-made masks and even surgical masks are not 100% effective against viruses, they will significantly reduce the amount of viruses let out by infected persons as well as reduce the amount taken in by uninfected people.
I believe the government should invest in the production of face masks by providing training and getting local tailors and seamstresses to mass produce them. These masks could be distributed free of charge to members of the public, particularly in places where traditionally crowds gather like markets, bus stops and slum communities. This will achieve the dual objective of providing employment at this time when the economy is depressed and also reducing the spread of the disease.
Kenya has just introduced a jail term for people caught in public without a face mask, following the example of some Asian countries. I believe we need to do the same, if the government steps in to provide face masks for members of the public.
I am absolutely convinced that if we emphasize the use of face masks, in addition to the other individual hygiene measures, a full scale lockdown will not be necessary for us to control the spread of the virus and we will all be spared the pain of losing loved ones.