Coronavirus: Can Face Masks Really Protect You? All You Should Know

  • A medical practitioner dressed in protective gear at Coronavirus isolation and treatment facility in Mbagathi District Hospital on Friday, March 6, 2020.
    A medical practitioner dressed in protective gear at Coronavirus isolation and treatment facility in Mbagathi District Hospital on Friday, March 6, 2020.
    Simon Kiragu
    KENYANS.CO.KE
  • Update March 11, 2020: The World Health Organisation has declared the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), a pandemic.

    For a disease to be declared a pandemic, it has to have spread globally. A pandemic is judged by how widely it has spread and not necessarily how deadly the disease is.

    Some of the diseases that have been termed as pandemics include cholera, smallpox, influenza and bubonic plague that were ranked as the deadliest in the history of the world.


    The spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has precipitated a panic buying of face masks - But with it, serious safety questions have to be answered as governments scramble to ban the export of masks to countries that have registered heightened demand.

    A photo of Passengers wearing face masks walk through a subway station in Beijing, China, on January 6, 2020.
    Passengers wearing face masks walk through a subway station in Beijing, China, on January 6, 2020.
    Bloomberg

    The face masks first made their distinct appearance after the Chinese government initiated a lockdown in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, and made it mandatory for the public and officials to wear face masks at all times in public places. 

    Used as a preventative measure against the spread of the disease, the masks have now made it to international stages with the Paris Fashion Week featuring models in face masks, as reported by the BBC on February 28, 2020.

    While not intended as a statement on COVID-19, the timing of the showcase with the rising number of cases across the globe, was conspicuous. 

    Figures across the globe place infections from the virus at 80,000 with 2,700 recorded deaths.

    Yet with the rising demand of the face masks, which has peaked at 200 million masks a day in China, there is still skepticism about the value of the masks in preventing the spread of the virus.

    The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, said it "does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19."

    According to experts speaking to CBS News in a report authored on Feb 27, 2020, wearing masks without proper fitting and training could actually increase the risk of infection.

    This is because there’d be a greater likelihood of touching your face with unclean hands - more specifically, your eyes, nose, and mouth - which is the No.1 way to contract the virus.

    Even as the clamour for the masks increases and prices soar, the protective advantage of the gear leans more towards those displaying symptoms who decrease their chances of passing on the virus than for the healthy trying to avoid contracting the disease.

    A surgical mask (left) and an N95 mask.
    A surgical mask (left) and an N95 mask.

    Health experts have been insisting that the best way to prevent infection is through proper handwashing with the masks serving only a minimal advantage. 

    Yet, for those committed to buying the masks despite experts' opinion on their limited effectiveness, the three to choose from are the N95, N99 and respiratory masks.

    The N95 is the most practical as it protects from 95% of air particles while the N99 offers 99% protection. The downside being that the mask cannot be worn for long periods of time as it is difficult to breathe through.

    The respiratory masks are more expensive, making them a less attractive option for those working on a tight budget. 

    The biggest consequence of the rush to buy the masks is the shortage it could create in hospitals and medical personnel.

    It is this state of affairs that pushed the Surgeon General of the United States, Jerome M. Adams,  on Saturday, February 2020 to issue an impassioned plea on Twitter asking people not to buy the masks.

    Jerome Adams argued that the rush by citizens to buy the N95 masks had resulted in price gouging and the increase of counterfeit products in the market which created a dangerous environment for healthcare personnel who relied on the masks to protect themselves from infection. 

    A health officer screening visitors at Nakuru County's health offices on February 19, 2020.
    A health officer screening visitors at Nakuru County's health offices on February 19, 2020.
    Daily Nation

    Kenyans, on the other hand, are facing their own unique set of problems with the masks.

    As per a report by the Daily Nation authored on March, Sunday 1, Kenya may be staring at a severe shortage of the masks after thousands were re-exported to China to bridge the deficit.

    The Pharmacy and Poisons Board had stopped re-exports of masks to China citing that Kenyans would need them in case of an outbreak. The decision was vetoed by a senior government official and the exports continued.

    According to the publication, business people have been moving from one supplier to another, buying the masks, assembling them and exporting them to China. 

    As middlemen capitalise on the situation, the price of the masks has shot up with a 50-pack box, previously retailing at Ksh200 now going for Ksh1000.

    A source at the Ministry of Health, addressing the re-exports, expressed his bleak sentiments, "We are joking with the lives of Kenyans. We are so much into trade, business that we have forgotten that we are playing with the lives of 47 million Kenyans."

    Africa has thus far reported cases of COVID-19 in three countries, Algeria, Egypt and most recently, Nigeria. 

    Nairobi has been ranked sixth among African cities whose populations are at high risk of contracting the virus.