MANILA — Just two months ago, health experts in the Philippines were urging the public to stop hoarding masks, which were already scarce following the Taal volcano eruption.
When the Philippines recorded its first confirmed COVID-19 patient in January 30, malls and medical supply stores were already out of surgical and N95 masks. Back then, the Department of Health (DOH) repeatedly said face masks were unnecessary for the general public.
In its public advisory, the World Health Organization also maintained that healthy people only needed masks "if you are taking care of a person with suspected infection" or when you are coughing or sneezing.
Now, governments are singing a different tune, as coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread worldwide, inflicting over a million people.
On April 2, the Philippine government required all residents of Luzon to wear a face mask or facial protective gear when they go out of their houses.
"Kung kailangan po nating lumabas ng bahay, kailangan po mag mask. Kahit improvised ito o panyo, basta po may pangtakip tayo ng bibig at ilong," said Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles during a televised briefing.
(If you need to leave your home, you need to wear a mask even if it's improvised or just a handkerchief. What's important is you cover your nose and mouth.)
Dr. Teodoro Herbosa of the University of the Philippines recently noted that based on data from Johns Hopkins University, countries that mandated the use of face masks recorded fewer COVID-19 cases.
“Nakita namin na ang mga bansang Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, at Korea ay nag-implementa ng mga programa o polisiya ng pagsuot ng surgical mask kapag lumalabas ang kanilang mamamayan. At nakita nating napakababa po ng epidemic curve, maliban pa sa ibang measures na iniimplementa ng kanilang bayan,” Herbosa said.
(We saw that countries like Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea implemented programs and policies about their residents wearing surgical masks when they go out. And we see that their epidemic curve is flatter, besides other measures implemented by their countries.)
In Singapore, the government shifted its mask policy after local virus cases rose.
“Wearing a mask may help to protect others, in case you have the virus but don’t know it,” Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.
Herbosa said countries like Italy, Spain, and the US did not implement such regulations on face masks; and these countries eventually became COVID-19 epicenters outside China, where the virus was first detected.
“That is why we recommended to the National Task Force that we have a policy on wearing surgical masks,” he said.
The South China Morning Post reported that in Hong Kong, where "wearing masks in public has been ingrained in collective psyche since the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic of 2003," COVID-19 cases were relatively few.
While the WHO still believes that face masks is for preventing sick people from infecting others, countries like the United States and Singapore have started telling their citizens to wear home-made or cloth masks, whichever is available.
And the WHO eventually said it will support governments to make such decisions “based on the context in which they're dealing and the resources that they have at their disposal.”
“We can certainly see circumstances on which the use of masks, both home-made and cloth masks, at the community level may help with an overall comprehensive response to this disease,” Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, was quoted saying.
While face masks cover a person’s nose and mouth, it won’t really stop people from holding their faces. The WHO has repeatedly reminded people to focus on handwashing instead to ensure virus elimination. A person can get infected if he or she unwittingly transfers the virus from their hands to their eyes, nose or mouth.
The WHO has cited studies saying that 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients were infected by symptomatic cases.
In countries like the Philippines and the United States, many have resorted to creating their own face masks made from easy to find materials.
The WHO said that while these won’t give 100 percent protection, they are better than wearing nothing.