Coronavirus warrants caution, not panic

February 27, 2020 18:09
Customers wait in line as a store assistant unpacks boxes of protective masks at a Hong Kong shop. People must avoid buying into rumors about the virus epidemic, and should instead fight the outbreak with a rational mindset, the author says. Bloomberg

As the novel coronavirus cases rose in number, there has been a growing sense of panic among Hong Kong people, prompting the citizens to scramble for face masks, among other things.

Now, we need to ask this question: is it really necessary for everybody to wear face masks wherever they go, under all circumstances?

Amid the mask-buying frenzy, one should bear in mind the interim guidance issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Jan. 29 in relation to the use of protective face coverings.

"Wearing medical masks when not indicated may cause unnecessary cost, procurement burden and create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices,” the WHO said in a general advisory.

And under a community setting, “a medical mask is not required, as no evidence is available on its usefulness to protect non-sick persons,” the UN health body said in another point of advice.

Of course, when it comes to high-risk individuals, such as sick people and healthcare workers, they should always wear face masks in order to avoid infecting others or getting infected by patients.

For average citizens, they should wear face masks whenever they go to crowded or poorly ventilated places, including the elevator, in times of epidemics.

But there is no need to put on face masks while inside an average household, open space, or places with little foot traffic.

As a matter of fact, although putting on a face mask seems to be a simple step, it is actually not as uncomplicated as people think when it comes to fitting it correctly on the face.

The reason is, a face mask won’t actually provide any substantial protection for you unless it is worn under a fully sealed condition. And it may simply backfire on you if it is worn incorrectly.

Under normal circumstances, an average person would touch his or her face or chin roughly 23 times per hour, or somewhere almost once every three minutes.

And the hand-to-face contact rate is likely to increase substantially when a person is wearing a face mask, as people tend to adjust their masks for a better fit or scratch their faces given that wearing a face mask is often quite uncomfortable.

Touching one’s face could be very dangerous, as it can pass viruses from your hands to your eyes, nose, and mouth, and then allow them to enter your body.

Given this, avoiding touching your face unconsciously may prove even more important than wearing a face mask when it comes to preventing virus infection.

Some people might argue that it’s difficult to control yourself from rubbing the face when you feel itchy.

Well, as a doctor, I would urge everybody to think about this aspect: are your hands clean or sterilized? If not, then my opinion is, you must resist the urge to touch your face.

As we all know, the people of Hong Kong often like to refer to international practices. So, let’s take a look at how the Singaporean government is advising its citizens on the use of face masks.

Up to this point, Singapore -- which is a densely-populated city like Hong Kong -- has recorded a similar number of confirmed COVID-19 infections as Hong Kong.

Yet Singaporean leaders, from the prime minister himself to the chiefs of various government branches, have repeatedly stressed on different public occasions that healthy people don’t need to wear face masks.

And let me cite another example here: during the 2018-19 winter flu season, Hong Kong recorded 625 cases of severe flu infections, which resulted in 357 deaths.

As we can see, compared to the novel coronavirus, the seasonal flu mortality rate has been much higher.

Given all this, I would argue that there is no need for the citizens to panic and line up for hours for face masks in the cold winter mornings, not to mention scrambling for groceries and daily essentials such as packaged rice, instant noodles and toilet paper.

People must avoid buying into or spreading rumors about the epidemic, and should instead fight the outbreak with caution and a rational and scientific mindset.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 15

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Chairman of Wisdom Hong Kong