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Opinion

We should wear masks to stop coronavirus outbreak

It is good hygiene at all times and makes special sense during pandemic

| China
A woman holding a child walks away from the expressway gate at the border of Wuhan city on Apr. 2: the best way is for all of us to wear masks.   © AP

Hu Shuli is the founder and publisher of Caixin Media.

As of Thursday, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 203,000 people and killed 8,241 globally, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. At this stage, what should the public do to prevent the relentless spread of COVID-19?

The simplest thing, I think, is for everybody to wear masks and wash their hands frequently. This is what we learned fighting the SARS epidemic 17 years ago -- it is totally irresponsible to claim that wearing masks is useless in preventing respiratory infections.

In the 1970s, I was a medical worker for patients with infectious diseases. I tended more than 100 acute hepatitis and tuberculosis patients. In this environment, how did I protect myself? I wore a mask at all times to prevent airborne infection, and I frequently washed my hands to avoid contact transmission. These two methods will generally keep you safe.

Now, for COVID-19, governments should tell people to wear masks in public, particularly in crowded urban areas. Officials at all levels should set a good example by wearing masks, and must not inspect the front lines of the virus fight without doing so.

Right before the lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, I saw from photos taken at the city's railway station and airport that few people were wearing masks, which left me very concerned about the situation.

Why are infectious diseases so much scarier in China? One of the reasons is that in the densely populated country, people have not established good hygiene habits. Thus whenever there is an infectious disease outbreak, it should be seen as an opportunity for our citizens to learn them.

Maybe there are some who simply do not like wearing masks and washing their hands, but actually it is because of poor hygiene habits. This must change. In Japan, you do not see such panic in the face of an infectious disease outbreak, because everyone already has these habits.

I must say we learned our lessons during the SARS epidemic in terms of hygiene. In April 2003, when the State Council, China's cabinet, admitted that the country was facing a serious situation in combating the outbreak, there were still media reports describing some local economies as doing well, without anyone "on the road wearing masks."

Even some materials that local governments produced to advise residents on how to deal with SARS claimed that wearing masks was "useless."

It is totally irresponsible to make that claim. One should admit that wearing masks will be very helpful for preventing the aerial transmission of the virus as long as the quality of the mask is not compromised. Also, anyone with a suspected case of the virus who has symptoms of a respiratory illness should wear a mask. And everyone's right to wear a mask should be protected.

Masks sold out notice is seen at a local pharmacy in Hong Kong on Mar. 18: everyone's right to wear a mask should be protected.   © Sipa/AP

Some opponents would say: Yes, masks protect your mouth, but what about your eyes? Some also argue that it doesn't look good to wear face masks in public areas. Obviously, those arguments do not make any sense.

Although there is no guarantee that wearing a mask will protect you completely from infection, it will definitely reduce the possibility of healthy people getting infected by people who do not yet know they have the disease.

Of course, if only infected people were required to wear masks, it would certainly draw criticism as it would be considered a form of discrimination. Thus the best way is for all of us to wear masks, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated areas.

Wearing a mask might seem like a trivial thing, but it reflects whether governments care about their people. In the early stage of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, the government of the special administrative region quickly took action to introduce and encourage residents to wear masks, including posting educational materials on its official website. And it was mandatory for all taxi drivers in the city to wear masks.

Furthermore, the Hong Kong government, local press and medical specialists have never said that wearing masks is useless.

Let's start by doing the small things that we can do. One of those is to end the resistance to wearing masks. If we can do this, it will be a step in the right direction.

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Read also the original story.

Caixinglobal.com is the English-language online news portal of Chinese financial and business news media group Caixin. Nikkei recently agreed with the company to exchange articles in English.

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