Editorial: The great face-off

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Many of us welcomed the new easing of mask-wearing measures; we can all breathe a sigh of relief in this heat. After all, this is one of the most extreme heatwaves in living memory. However, many people amongst us didn’t welcome the news of mask removal for multiple reasons. Of course, if you wish to continue wearing a mask, it’s entirely your choice and a choice that must not face any discrimination for either having the vaccine and being extra cautious or not taking the vaccine.

It’s interesting to note the public’s compliance and our ongoing relationship with our masks, from the onset of the pandemic to how we feel now. Before vaccines began rolling out to the public, masks were among the only tools available for containing Covid-19. It was all we had on this little rock and a small bottle of sanitiser. And in retrospect, they seem to have done their job. A mask both provides the wearer with a physical barrier against germs and prevents them from exhaling potentially infectious droplets into the atmosphere, ideally cutting down on the amount of circulating virus that can infect others.

Before the world knew about Covid-19 masking up was already commonplace in many Asian countries. Particularly after the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, face masks became a regular sight in Hong Kong, Japan and other parts of Eastern Asia. People often wore them to protect themselves and others during cold and flu season. So, when Covid-19 hit, people in those countries generally were very much willing to mask up.

As the pandemic went on, scientific consensus shifted to be strongly in favour of masks, and many states and cities mandated their use in public. And while masks are certainly not perfect, they don’t just protect us from Covid-19, but other diseases, too.

If we take a look at the US, during the 2019-2020 flu season, at least 24,000 people died from the influenza virus. It’s too soon to know precisely how many people will die from the flu during the 2020-2021 season, but it will almost surely be a much lower number. According to CDC data, fewer than 500 people in the US—and just one child—had died from the flu as of April 1. Locally, such information would be difficult to obtain.

There are some lessons from the pandemic that may prevail, even if masks once again fade into the ether and one day become the thing of museum collections from this surreal time. Never before has the Maltese public been so attuned to how diseases spread and the potential consequences when they do. So ultimately, don’t throw away the masks just yet. We must accept they will be a mainstay for years to come and opting to wear them should be respected by all.

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