Europe, U.S. Slowly Adopting Mask-Wearing Against COVID-19

A bicyclist wearing a face mask is seen near the Brandenburger Gate in Berlin, capital of Germany, March 28, 2020. (Photo by Binh Truong/Xinhua)

BERLIN (Xinhua) — Face masks, in either Europe or the United States, had never hit so many headlines as they do now.

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages in Europe and the United States, some countries and cities have rolled out mandatory wearing-a-mask-in-public rules or recommendations, with louder calls from experts and significantly more people wearing masks than weeks ago.

Such a development represents a gradual shift from Westerners’ old view that face masks were only needed by special groups of people such as medical staff and the sick.

Wearing a mask used to risk being frowned upon, but people are coming to recognize that it can provide protection from coronavirus infection.

LEARNING PHASE

On Saturday, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa said he wore a face mask when doing shopping.

“I wear a mask. This is an idea that came from my grandchildren. He learned from the Chinese example. China has another tradition of using masks,” the 71-year-old president was quoted by the Lusa news agency as saying in a report.

On Thursday, the Nordhausen district in Germany’s Thuringia state announced that mouth protection will be mandatory after the Easter holiday.

Earlier, on Tuesday, Jena, also in Thuringia, ordered the wearing of masks in shops, public transport, and buildings with large movements of people.

Given the shortages of protective masks, the town said covering the mouth and nose with towels or scarves will be acceptable while encouraging residents to sew masks for themselves.

A similar regulation was also introduced in Austria. People have to wear a face mask before entering supermarkets, said the government on March 30 as part of additional measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

“I am fully aware that masks are something foreign to our culture,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at a press conference with other government officials. “It will be a learning phase.”

Mask wearing became mandatory in the Czech Republic on March 18, and its Prime Minister Andrej Babis has recommended this practice to European and U.S. leaders.

On March 19, Babis in a tweet message called on Trump to adopt the measure to curb the virus’s spread. “Wearing a simple cloth mask decreases the spread of the virus by 80 percent! Czech Republic has made it OBLIGATORY for its citizens to wear a mask in the public,” he wrote.

Also on Twitter, he said he had sent videos to urge most European presidents and prime ministers to do the same.

LOUDER CALL

It was not a strong voice in Europe and the United States at the beginning of the pandemic. European researchers have re-evaluated the role of face masks before vocally supporting their use as a protection.

Michael Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO) health emergencies program, said during a virtual press conference on Friday that the global health body supports governments in using masks part of their anti-virus strategies.

He cited difficult circumstances for people to maintain a needed physical distance, noting, “There may be situations where the wearing of masks may reduce the rate of infection.”

Germany’s disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), recently said on its website that if people wear a mask as a precaution, even without symptoms, it could reduce the risk of virus being transmitted to others.

Previously, the RKI only recommended mouth protection for people with acute respiratory diseases.

With not so many COVID-19 cases confirmed a few weeks ago, a face mask was not necessary. “But now we’re in the exponential phase,” noted Alexander Kekule, a virologist with Germany’s Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg in his podcast carried by the local media MDR.

He urged everyone to wear surgical masks in public, protect others from infection as well as themselves to a certain extent.

U.S. DIVIDE

Even as more Europeans are seen wearing masks at groceries and on buses, they account for a small portion of the population. But a change is happening, though gradually.

Across the Atlantic, public perception has also altered in the United States as the country now reported the largest number of confirmed cases.

But there is still divide among Americans, and even between the U.S. first couple.

Since infectious asymptomatic cases make it harder to fight COVID-19, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended Americans wear face coverings in public to prevent infection.

On Friday, Trump repeatedly stressed at a Whited House briefing that the CDC-advised use of cloth face covering, which the CDC said could be one made at home of common materials at low cost, is “voluntary.”

“The CDC is advising the use of non-medical cloth face covering as a voluntary health measure,” Trump said. “It is voluntary. They suggested for a period of time. This is voluntary.”

Minutes after the U.S. president announced the CDC guideline and said that he was opting not to personally follow it, his wife Melania tweeted: “I ask that everyone take social distancing & wearing a mask/face covering seriously. #COVID 19 is a virus that can spread to anyone.”

SHORTAGE OF MASKS

However, a wider mandatory use of face masks is hindered by a severe shortage in both Europe and the United Stats.

According to official data, Switzerland currently has about 17 million masks in stock, and 2 million are used on a daily basis.

As frontline medical workers are short of masks, the German association of cities and municipalities is against a general mask requirement over fear of panic buying.

Given the shortage of masks, sewing one has become an option. A commentary carried by the German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote: “Sewing machines are rattling all over Germany … school-children as well as grannies are now making face masks and thus supporting clinics and nursing homes that are running out of face protection.”

Amid the campaign “Masks for Poland,” cities like Slupsk and Pulawy are ordering and distributing face masks to residents.

On Friday, Mayor of Gdansk, a major city of Poland, Aleksandra Dulkiewicz encouraged locals to wear protective masks and showed them how to sew one at home.

“We must put on masks for everyone, sick or not, it’s the only way to stop an epidemic like this,” said Philippe Douste-Blazy, a former French minister of health.

(Xinhua reporters Tan Jingjing in Washington, Nie Xiaoyang in Geneva, Yu Tao and Zhao Feifei in Vienna, Yang Xiaohong in Prague, Pan Geping and Yu Yue in Brussels, Xu Yongchun in Paris, Wen Xinnian in Lisbon, Zhang Zhang in Warsaw, Guo Mingfang in Vilnius, and Chen Jin in Bucharest contributed to the story.)