Taiwan government requisitioned surgical masks for general use
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It Has Always Been a Matter of Masks
A high profile case study from Covid-19 champion Taiwan suggests widespread use of masks may be the deciding factor.
Perhaps the biggest mistake in the Western world's flubbed response to Covid-19 was the bizarre mixed messaging on masks. On the one hand, people were told masks were scarce PPE needed by responders and doctors. On the other, people were told masks were useless; the virus particles were so small! What really mattered was compulsively washing your hands and not touching your face.
It was dubious, but influential, advice. And how were they so sure? I'm not here to blame the WHO or anyone else. National health agencies should never let the WHO make their decisions for them on a matter of such great importance. I'm here to say that people love to believe in counterintuitive truths, and propaganda artists know this. This is why conspiracy theories thrive and we have Flat Earthers and, even, Anti-Vaxxers, who may still have a role in how this pandemic plays out. Likewise, we notice that several "high-propaganda" countries fared extremely well as compared to "high-freedom" countries. They were too smart to try and trick their masses. Instead, they were transparent about measures taken, the known science, and the infection rates and numbers. Compare Vietnam, Taiwan and Cambodia to France, Italy and America.
Anyway, a lot of Westerners got the idea th at masks were dodgy. They became controversial. But the sadly ironic truth is that they were, are, and will continue to be the answer, depending on what country you are talking about.
Even as a biology graduate, I was a skeptic myself, well into January. And it took a lot of reading and thinking, and living in the safest locale on Earth, Taiwan, but this is what I believe now: Learn to love the mask. And, I think a single recent news story from Taiwan will convince you too.
In mid-April, Taiwan had Covid19 almost totally under control. The public was still wearing masks on the street, however, and masks were mandatory in public buildings and on public transit. People here can be cautious even in ordinary times.
Then, on April 18th, three Taiwan navy sailors tested positive for the 'Wuhan virus,' as the government here insists on calling it. Three days later, the tally was 27. Seven hundred sailors went into quarantine. People I knew started getting text alerts from the government telling them they had spent significant time in the same restaurant/gym/train carriage/bus with one or more of these infected sailors. A big concern was that the sailors were likely in a highly contagious state considering the overall timeline of this outbreak, which happened on a ship that was most likely delivering highly coveted PPE to Palau, one of Taiwan's few diplomatic allies. (For the record, a government probe concluded the cluster originated in Taiwan, not Palau.)
Twenty-three million people froze in their shoes. The president made a public apology.
These sailors had practically been on walkabout. They were on shore leave. Taiwan was probably the best place in the whole world to be then, and it still is. They went to supermarkets; they went to discos; they rode the high speed train; they took the bus, even as these activities were banned or severely restricted in most countries. And the government preemptively recorded their motions in a presumably benevolent database, hence the text alerts. I personally know hundreds of expatriate Westerners living in Taiwan, and most of them don't seem to feel very bothered by this database.
Now, here's the thing. These sailors didn't infect a single other soul, despite a lapse of nearly two weeks between their going ashore and being quarantined. I would argue, strongly, that masks made all the difference. These sailors were definitely wearing masks wherever they went. Indeed, they would have been under military order to do so. And, at that time, most of the country was wearing masks in all public settings. To not wear a mask was to invite harsh glares, I can attest.
Yes, streets were less crowded as people stayed home. Restaurants and bars were open in Taiwan, but they were taking temperatures, spraying hands, and enforcing social-distancing. To be sure, many other countries took similar social distancing measures yet failed to curb the viral onslaught. Maybe they didn't have the masks, or people just wouldn't wear them. But, masks would have helped - a lot.
Whether this deathly failure was due
cultural hubris, misinformation or lack of supply matters not. What matters now
is that the immediate future needs to involve masks, and lots of them.
Taipei, Taiwan (R.O.C.)
June 1, 2020