April 14, 2020 10:32
Photo: Reuters

To mask or not to mask? That is the question.

Covid-19 has woken the rest of the world to a practice with which the people of Hong Kong are very familiar.

The SARS epidemic brought home the utility of wearing clinical face masks because it was an air-born virus against which masks provided a large measure of protection.

Received clinical wisdom is that face masks provide some protection against Covid-19 not to the wearer but to others, by containing the risk of the wearer spreading the infection by projection of the virus via coughs and sneezes.

This is not the place to debate the efficiency levels of different types of face mask, so let us just work on the premise that it is perceived as sociably responsible to wear a face mask, especially in crowded places like lifts, buses and the MTR.

Because there is no consensus of medical opinion on the merits of members of the public wearing face masks, let us not jump to hasty moral conclusions about those who choose not to do so.

What is far more interesting is the behaviour of people who do wear masks.

First, there are the proponents of 100% barrier nursing with their full-face shield worn over a face mask, more often than not topped off with a wide-brimmed hat and surgical gloves.

Admirable though this is, one cannot help sensing a projected moral superiority beneath the layers of protection. Enjoy.

Next is the clinical face mask which is marginally shifted to permit food and drink to enter via a momentary uplift or brief disconnect from one ear. This does tend to leave a residue of food particles and opens a direct route for hand to mouth transmission.

A fascinating source of study is the ‘fidgety face’ who constantly adjusts the mask, clamping and unclamping the nose indentation, adjusting the folds across the mouth and chin. Within no time at all the mask carries the detritus of everything the wearer has touched since donning it, potentially breaching the impermeability of the fabric.

Perhaps the most common offender is the ‘chin-hammock’ style. Still suspended from both ears, the mask is pulled down to nestle beneath the chin, usually to permit the wearer to smoke or converse on the mobile which delivers possibly lethal kisses to the unprotected lips.

This latter style is much favoured by some construction workers who find that the protective layers interfere with their ability to converse, at maximum decibel gain in the scatological language which is their preferred vernacular.

These masks usually carry an accretion of days of site debris, mucous and carcinogens. Protection indeed.

The false sense of security induced by wearing a face masks has added to the risks of what I have christened ‘mobilitis’ the addiction to reading a smart phone when walking in public.

With the head inclined down at a 45° angle, with or without earphones, face mostly encapsulated in a mask, these addicts are blithely unaware of anyone in their unwavering path.

Of course, if hit by a car when crossing the road in this state of oblivion, at least the mask will prevent them losing their dentures.

Then there is the nightmare of mask disposal. Far too many folk seem to think that once they have lost their utility, they can just be discarded anywhere. Irrespective of the criminal act of littering, a potentially germ laden item of protective kit is abandoned without a moment’s thought for anyone else.

Hospital waste has to be disposed of in hazardous waste containers after which it is destroyed. Therefore why should face masks be treated any less prudently?

The least precaution is to seal used masks in a plastic bag before disposing of it in the rubbish bin.

The self-disciplined carry an envelope into which to store the mask between usage, the undisciplined leave them lying around like used condoms, to help spread the contagion.

Whilst the population is being directed to take every reasonable precaution against the spread of the virus and people are being either urged or demanded to wear face masks in many public places, the Court of Appeal has ruled that it is constitutional for the Chief Executive to ban face masks whenever a meeting in public is deemed unlawful.

As this decision will doubtless be considered by the Court of Final Appeal, it is not appropriate to embark on a considered analysis here. However, I cannot help but puzzle over the impracticability of a law which bans masks for protesters who do not take part in the violence but who remain at the scene “to provide moral support to the perpetrators”.

How is the moral supporter to be distinguished from the mere spectator? In the heightened tension of such events, it imposes too high a responsibility on police officers to make such a fine judgment at the scene. Sadly, this judicial pronouncement appears singularly masked from reality.

Currently, any public gathering of more than four is unlawful. Interesting.

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King's Counsel