Do Masks Really Help?

Taking street photos in Bangkok last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic started, I wore a mask because of the high air pollution levels. That’s me in the brown hat on the left, reflected in a large mirror. If I look a little wasted it’s because I’d just been discharged from hospital after a month of measles.

A few people giggled at the unusual sight of a masked Westerner — normally seen in movies robbing a bank — but they didn’t make me feel out-of-place. In fact, I started to enjoy this way of blending in with the community, crossing over from being a devil-take-the-hindmost “farang” (foreigner) to socially responsible Bangkok native.

Please note: I took all these pictures last year. Anyone featured in them without a mask has certainly been wearing one recently.

two health workers in masks, walking past a massive fire hydrant

Getting Serious
Mask-wearing in public has become one of the world’s most controversial issues. It raises a huge number of questions, two of which I’ll try to answer in this article:

First: Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
Second: Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?

Can a mask stop you from getting Covid-19?
At the onset of the epidemic in the UK, health experts were scornful of the supposed effectivess of masks in preventing people from contracting the virus. They even warned against using them because of the danger of touching the mask, then touching your eyes or spreading the virus via surfaces. (Good point!)

three young women in blue and white uniforms, one with mask

There were also other aspects worrying the authorities. For example, many types of mask offer no protection against viruses.

At the very minimum you need an N95 mask with a respirator because it filters out 95% of airborne particles larger than 0.3 microns. Even then, many small “virions” (infective virus particles) can squeeze through.

Many lower-rated anti-pollution masks designated “PM2.5” (Particulate Matter, 2.5 microns across) are ineffective against viruses, although they’re useful for keeping dust, pollen and other airborne particles at bay. Here’s why:

Size Matters
Virions range in size from 20 nanometres to 400 nanometres, with the virion that infects you with Covid-19 being in the middle of that range, at 120 nanometres (or 0.0000048 inches). By contrast, a 2.5 micron particle (against which the standard anti-pollution mask is effective) has a diameter of 2,500 nanometres (there are 1,000 nanometres in a micron). Clearly, a coronavirus could pass right through a PM2.5 mask very easily, floating with others 20 abreast!

Social Acceptance
At the beginning last year, the mask as a fashion statement had not yet caught on in the west, but it was already tending that way in Bangkok, such was the level of acceptance.

two women, one dwith animal mask

In the west, it was thought that there would be panic-buying on a grand scale, diverting masks away from health professionals, care workers, shop staff, and others who need them most.

The UK’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty went so far as to say that wearing a mask “reduces the risk almost not at all.” The standard line was “wash your hands for 20 seconds” and “keep two metres apart” — simple advice that helped, even if it did not go far enough.

The World Health Organization (WHO) gave similar advice at first, but has modified it in the light of new research. It now appears that coughs can reach 6 metres and sneezes even further: up to 8 metres.

Perhaps, all along, the Eastern approach to wearing masks has been right, having been rooted in a tradition of covering part of the face whenever you have a cold.

man in red tee-shirt with yellow under-vest in a teddy-bear pattern, wearing a mask over his mount only

Unfortunately, even Bangkok natives don’t always wear them correctly. A mask needs to fit precisely over the nose, around the sides and under the chin. The delivery guy in my photo (above) has not covered his nose, which makes mask-wearing rather pointless.

Can a mask stop you giving Covid-19 to others?
The answer to this is a heavily qualified “yes,” but only if you don’t cough or sneeze while coming into close proximity with anyone else.

Coughing into a mask creates an aura of infective particles around your head, extending up to a metre — and liable to float in the direction of anyone nearby.

Theoretically, you need breathe in only a single, fully-fledged virion to become infected, although in practice (for many reasons) that number is very much higher.

In cold weather (almost never experienced in Bangkok) it’s easy to see people’s breath and avoid it. At other times, you can see only the exhalations of smokers and vapers. Obviously, this easily identifiable cloud will have just emerged from deep inside a pair of lungs — and is not the kind of “air” you need to be breathing during a viral pandemic, mask or no mask.

Good Reasons for Wearing a Mask
I’ve already mentioned the new research on the reach of coughs and sneezes, but there are other reasons, too, for wearing a mask during the pandemic.

When people go out for brief exercise or trips to the pharmacy, they may very well encounter others, who — while showing no symptoms whatsoever — may possibly be “silent carriers” of the virus. You can still catch a virus from a silent carrier.

A third reason is the way in which wearing a mask — or seeing others wear them — reminds us of ever-present danger. Of course, it would be a relief if we could stop thinking (and writing!) about this subject, but it’s better to seek escape by watching a movie in the safety of home rather than behave as normal outside.

In pre- and post-pandemic times we can — like the person below — occasionally let down our guard when off-duty, but, in the Age of Coronavirus (as I called it last week), those times seem very distant.

young woman with mask under chin, standing in front of an illuminated underwear mannequin

(All photos taken pre-pandemic!)

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