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With governments around the world struggling to provide healthcare workers on the coronavirus front lines with protective equipment, governments are now advising members of the public to fashion their own face masks at home to help reduce the transmission of the coronavirus.
Since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, many Western countries have stressed that the widespread use of masks is not necessary – a stance that has surprised many in parts of Asia, where mask-wearing is a common practice.
Although how useful homemade masks are at preventing the spread of disease remains an open question, governments recently seem to have fallen back on the default position that something is better than nothing.
“The big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks,” said Gao Fu, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in an interview with Science magazine in late March.
Mask-wearing is simply not common in Western culture, he added.
In recent days, however, several European countries have updated their position on mask wearing, with the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Austria announcing new rules to compel people to cover their faces in public places like supermarkets.
After weeks of official statements saying it was not necessary to wear a mask unless you were sick or worked in the medical profession, France’s Académie Nationale de Médecine (Academy of Medicine) announced last Friday that a mask should be compulsory during outings both during and after the current lockdown.
The French government quickly followed with an announcement that the manufacture of non-medical “alternative” masks to be used by the public would be ramped up and, the next day, said it had ordered two billion face masks from China.
The reversal came after media reports – notably by investigative news site Mediapart and state-run TV France 2 – that the government’s early insistence that face masks were not useful was, in fact, prompted by a shortage of them.
Marina Carrère d’Encausse, a French doctor and TV personality, has described the early official line as a “lie” told “for a good cause” to ensure that medical staff had enough.
Make your own
Pulmonologist Nicolas Hutt, who works in Alsace, one of the French regions most affected by the epidemic, said people should wear “alternative masks” not produced for medical purposes.
These would act as a barrier in “areas where distancing measures are not properly followed, like shops”, Hutt added.
Online tutorials for making your own masks have circulated widely, and the French industry ministry’s standardisation board posted a manufacturing blueprint on Friday.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has also said that textile and paper firms would now be encouraged to make masks.
These would not be for medical personnel but for those who would see a mask as a good way of equipping themselves and “reassuring themselves, protecting themselves and fighting against the epidemic”.
Some could even be luxury branded. At the weekend, fashion house Chanel said it was mobilising dozens of its dressmakers to produce masks and gowns and would “start production as soon as the prototypes and raw materials have been approved”.
But even the doctors who recommend the use of masks insist they should not be seen as an alternative to the most crucial prevention measures, such as hand-washing and social distancing.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)