TOKYO -- The Japanese government has started deliveries of a pair of cloth face masks to each of the country's 50-plus million households, as part of its plan to slow the rapid spread of the new coronavirus.
With the program costing in excess of 400 million dollars, the masks have been mocked by the public as "Abenomasks" -- a play on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's economic policies known as Abenomics. The move has been derided as petty and ineffective compared with steps in other countries such as lockdowns or greater economic incentives.
But face masks, prevalent in East Asian countries before the outbreak, are increasingly being seen globally as an effective tool against the spread of COVID-19.
In the early stages of the pandemic, masks were not seen as particularly useful. In February, the World Health Organization advised that "if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19."
Satoshi Hori, professor of infection control science at Juntendo University in Tokyo, used to say that scientific evidence showed handwashing was a better way to prevent infections. But in a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, he said more people believe "it may be better for everyone to wear masks universally to reduce secondary infections."
"Unlike influenza, a major infectious disease that is transmitted through droplets, it became apparent from scientific research that asymptomatic and subclinical patients play a role in spreading the novel coronavirus," Hori said.
Masks are also seen as an effective way to prevent the virus' spread within a household, as during lockdowns people spend many hours together at home. Because an infected person can easily spread the virus to other family members, mask-wearing is particularly important for people who have to care for patients.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump previously advised healthy people not to wear masks, but reversed its course early this month.
The U.S.'s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now advises people to wear cloth masks "to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others." It says that surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.
Other western countries such as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Austria are encouraging or forcing its citizens to wear masks. "I'm fully aware that wearing masks is something alien to our culture," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz last month.
The course of discussion may have changed after countries such as the U.S. and Italy were hit much harder by the virus than many Asian nations, where mask-wearing is common.
Taiwan has been praised internationally for its handling of the crisis, and one of the steps it took was to ensure that everyone could get hold of masks. It introduced a rationing system in early February that now allows every adult to buy nine masks every 14 days, and this month the island made it compulsory to wear masks on public transport.
In Japan, people wear masks daily to avoid hay fever in the spring, to keep influenza at bay in the winter, and to stop infecting others when a person is not feeling well.
But for many Japanese, cloth masks feel unreliable. Packages of disposable surgical masks often say they can effectively block droplets that contain viruses.
However, cloth masks are better than nothing.
"Covering the mouth with anything will prevent droplet infections," said Juntendo University's Hori, who still advises rigorous handwashing.