Having read about the coronavirus pandemic and the harm it has already caused to humanity since the emergence of the potential lethal virus six months ago, we are now overwhelmed with scary news of overflowing hospitals and death statistics around the world. Also, the fact that the likelihood of the availability of vaccines for the world population seems months away has placed us in dilemma. The uncertainties surrounding the behaviour of this dreaded disease are continuously changing. And the new information is evolving with recommendations to contain the spread of the virus disease. There have been reports of resurge of infections in many of the places where lockdown restrictions were lifted fully or partially. As we have no drugs to treat the serious cases of coronavirus infection and vaccines to counter it, we are left with only a few alternatives to tackle its spread among susceptible populations. Health advisories from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other national and international organisations are also constantly changing. The problem associated with the virus is our inability to find out who may be an asymptomatic carrier and this brings tricky situations, especially in the crowded urban areas and operations in a closed place.
Evidence Let us hope that the science finds out the solution to the COVID-19 pandemic in a few months. We, therefore, should mentally be prepared to face cycles of easing lockdown, clustering lockdown, witnessing a surge in the number of infections and locking down again in areas of infection clusters. This is the cyclic pattern we should be mentally prepared for. Imagine the situation in which it continues for a year. Then what will happen if we do not plan for a new normal right now? Using the available data, it is important to plan as the pandemic behaves. Nowadays, when we go out for a walk or for errands, at least half of the people we see are not found wearing masks or are wearing masks around their necks without knowing or neglecting their intended purpose. Many studies have shown that peaks in the viral load occur days before symptoms begin to be seen and that talking is enough to expel droplets laden with the virus. Wearing a mask has a special purpose and not a good-luck talisman. The recently published meta-analysis of various interventions to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus from a person infected with the disease to people close to them found that wearing a mask significantly reduces the transmission of the virus. Now, we have enough pieces of evidence that face masks protect the wearer but at the same time, it prevents others more from catching an infection from the person wearing the mask. A study examining coronavirus deaths across 198 countries found that those with cultural norms or government policies favouring mask-wearing had lower death rates than other countries not in favour of doing so. The transmissions of infection from an infected individual to others have been substantially lower when face masks were used. Undoubtedly, face masks are not pleasant to wear as well as are not convenient on many occasions. They can be uncomfortable if not fitted properly; they can fog up glasses; produce hindrances while eating, drinking, or specially talking over the telephone and at large, they can soften our voice and hide our smile besides excessive sweating during summer times. Many countries have made it mandatory to wear a face mask outside their home or in public places and few even imposed a fine for not wearing it in public places. Our psyche is to punish or shame people who are not wearing a mask but it is very easy for us to control ourselves and protect ourselves as possible as we can. We never know or hear that we are infected with the virus. Therefore, it is humane to think for others and not transmit the virus to others by following basic protective measures such as physical distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing a face mask. At the beginning of this pandemic, even WHO and other organisations did not recommend the use of face masks by healthy people, but now they have changed their recommendation about face masks. They have recommended the use of cloth face masks for the general public. The shifting of their guidelines may have created confusion among the general public but at this time, we have sufficient evidences for the use of it in public places and that the more people wearing masks, the better. The utility of face masks become more prominent in closed, crowded areas such as buses, stores, and offices where it is not easy to maintain a distance of six feet from other people and avoid spontaneous coughs and sneezes.
Irreversible impact The existing form of lockdown is destined to result in unintended consequences as it causes delays in treatment of other medical complications, irreversible impact on education, the looming pandemic of mental health issues, and massive economic aftermaths. The present trend of testing among quarantined people only and their contact tracing will not be sufficient for generating quality data to decide upon when to reopen other activities which are still closed. Therefore, it is urged that to allow other operations which are still closed with mandatory use of face masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing. After all, comprehensive approach is needed until a vaccine is available. It is the government who should scale up testing, tracing, isolating and treating the infected while the general public should follow preventive measures to help contain the spread of the coronavirus infection.
(Dr. Lohani is a professor and founder and academic director of Nobel College. firstname.lastname@example.org)