Face masks a factor?

Submitted by AWL on 28 April, 2020 - 12:45 Author: Zack Muddle
Woman wearing face mask

Martin Thomas’s article “Can we get R<1?” (Solidarity 544, 21 April) was useful and insightful. However, he is too quick at one point to evaluate and attribute causality in successful strategies for limiting the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus which causes Covid-19):

“China seems to have exited lockdown, and South Korea to have avoided it. That is hopeful. But that has been done by measures of state control and surveillance which European states could not equal. Even France, which many more police per head of population than the UK, and has imposed 100 times more fines for breaches of lockdown, couldn’t come near it.

“South Korea managed to ‘contain’ an outbreak originating from a religious gathering. It did a lot of tests, but not nearly as many as Germany, and charging people $150 for them. The difference is that the government tracked everyone’s movements through their mobile phones, credit-card use, and CCTV, and then notified all the contacts of people who’d tested positive. The population was already epidemic-conscious because of SARS and MERS, and complied.”

Our ability to compare how different countries are faring in tackling Covid-19, at the current time, given current data, is seriously limited. Often questionable metrics are used. Even more difficult is to attribute what factors cause these differences, and the relative importance of these factors.

It is necessary that attempts at such comparisons are made, so that different methods can be evaluated and implemented, improved, or discarded as relevant. The data and research should be open so that governments, companies, can be held to account by a more informed labour movement. But our conclusions must be cautious in proportion to the weight of our evidence.

Lockdown, quarantines, testing, and tracing, are not the only relevant differences when comparing South Korea to, for example, most European countries and the UK.

South Korea has promoted, successfully, much more facemask wearing by members of the public. While evidence suggests that many facemasks offer little protection to the wearer, maybe also may reduce the transmission from the wearer. Opinion is divided about what we should draw from this. But when attributing outcomes of particular public health policies to particular components, attempted “universal mask wearing” must be taken into account.

“Social distancing” and “lockdowns” aim to reduce R through minimising general social contact. Testing, and even more so “contact tracing”, aim to reduce social contact but in a more targeted, fine toothed way. Facemasks, hygiene and PPE aim to reduce R in cases where social contact (perhaps mediated by surfaces) does happen.

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