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By Brian Sokutu

Senior Print Journalist


Wear a mask, don’t wear a mask – the debate rages on

Government insists masks should be worn during the coronavirus pandemic, but a Stellenbosch expert disagrees.


While the country’s Covid-19 toll continues to soar – at least 1,505 infected and nine deaths reported by yesterday – the debate over the use of masks continues to rage, seemingly having created a gulf between national Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize and authorities in the Western Cape.

While Mkhize this week reiterated government’s message for all people to wear masks, the Western Cape department of health has described wearing masks as “unnecessary and potentially risky”.

University of Stellenbosch health expert Dr Kerrin Begg said there was no conclusive evidence that the use of masks yielded good results, as no environmental studies had yet been done on their effectiveness, or on how masks prevented the spread of the coronavirus which causes Covid-19.

“To effectively contain the spread of the virus, washing your hands with soap and ensuring social distancing has thus far been the best thing to do to contain the pandemic,” Begg said.

“Masks can be dangerous, especially when people leave them lying around because they can lead to the spread of the infection, especially those belonging to people who are positive and their masks being laced with excretion,” she said,

Begg said the use of masks was “ideal in taxis and in informal settlements where social distancing was difficult”.

Asked which was the best type of mask to wear, she recommended “a medical mask”.

“Cloth masks are a compromise if not daily washed, in line with good hygiene.”

Forbes.com reported this week the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) would be recommending all Americans wear face coverings when they go to the grocery store, pharmacy or other public places.

“This new guidance is meant to complement the existing Coronavirus Guidelines for America that are in place through 30 April,” Forbes.com said. “Previously, the CDC advised that only symptomatic people need to wear masks, partly to leave N95 and other medical-grade masks for healthcare workers who need them”.

“President [Donald] Trump said wearing face masks would be a recommendation, not a mandate.

“Some people don’t want to do that” and that people can “decide for themselves”, Forbes quoted Trump as saying.

But how do South Africans feel about them?

The Citizen conducted a snap street survey in Kempton Park central business district on the reasoning behind wearing or not wearing masks, drawing mixed reactions.

“I have been buying disposable masks to last me for a week, but due to finances, am now washing my handkerchief to use,” said David Scott.

With her meagre monthly state grant, pensioner Maria Mavuso of Thembisa said she would “rather buy food than masks”.

“Schools are closed and my grandchildren depend on this grant for food,” Mavuso said. “Where would I get extra money to buy a mask, if the government cannot provide citizens for free?”

Cynthia Mokoena said she found washable masks “better than disposable masks, because they last longer”.

“I can’t keep up with wearing something daily which I will have to throw away,” she said.

Some people said putting on masks amounted to “suffocation”.

“I put on a mask for a few minutes and because I suffer from asthma, it was as if I was suffocating myself and I threw it in a dustbin,” said Ethel Koyo.

That view was echoed by William Sonto: “I just cannot get used to putting a mask for a long time. I only wear a mask when inside a supermarket, but immediately pull out when outside to be able to breathe normally.”

Sidney Baloyi said: “Since the outbreak of the coronavirus in South Africa, I have never stepped out of my home without a mask. When people die, why should I take chances with my life?”

brians@citizen.co.za

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