In Europe, people wearing face masks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic were often met with strange looks. Now the tide seems to be shifting their way.
While most western countries authorities didnt initially recommend the practice for the general population, multiple governments from the Czech Republic to the U.S. now oblige or recommend everyone to cover their mouth and nose.
Differing official guidance across the EU has left citizens confused, contributing to a general impression that basic coordination in the bloc was missing at the height of a major health crisis.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) has said face masks be worn only by those who are already sick and those caring for them.
But given that people could be infectious without showing symptoms, everybody should wear one as a precaution, advocates of the measure argue.
Among them are European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria and Bulgaria, which have either imposed or recommended covering up.
In contrast, leaders in countries such as Germany, France and Belgium have been cautious, sticking to narrower guidelines.
Now WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has recently signaled that the organizations stance may change.
“WHO … continues to evaluate the potential use of masks more broadly to control COVID-19 transmission at the community level,” he said on Wednesday, adding that the evidence and the WHO advice is evolving along with the pandemic.
The shift in advice and the caveats that have come with it not only confused people, it also fueled suspicions that public health guidelines were adopted out of pragmatic reasons rather than scientific rationale.
Some suspect a global shortage of the protective equipment has driven the WHOs advice against wearing them in the community — to leave them for health care workers. The organizations lead for the Health Emergencies Program, Michael Ryan, has rejected that claim.
At the national level, depleted stocks of medical equipment also spurred controversy on the issue.
In France, so-called strategic stocks of masks constituted in the 2000s — when the government feared an avian flu pandemic — plummeted, going from 1,4 billion units in 2012 to 150 million units in 2020, newspaper JDD reported.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Thursday had to repeatedly defend his governments policy on prime time TV. “As soon as we realized that there would be important needs, we tried to increase our national [production] capacity… as well as buy abroad the masks we need,” he said.
From no mask to any type of mask
More specific advice, such as what type of mask counts as protection, has shifted too.
To not deprive health care workers of masks, the Czech Republic has said any cotton material would do, so people use folded bandanas and scarves around their faces or have started using homemade masks — although the science is still out about whether they make a real difference.
Germanys authority on infectious diseases, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), has tweaked its recommendations on mask wearing to say that a simple protective mask can reduce the risk of infecting another person by coughing, sneezing or speaking.
“Cloth masks may help to hold back droplets when coughing or talking … but they do not help to protect the wearer himself,” the Institutes boss Lothar Wieler told reporters on Friday.
Trump seems to be embracing the cloth-over-mouth-and-nose idea, saying on Wednesday that wearing a scarf over the face could help prevent the spread of coronavirus.
In Europe, divisions on the issue are on full display at country or local level.
The Czech Republic and Slovakia went all out and said everybody must wear them in public. Austria recommends people should wear them when in supermarkets (which provide them).
The European Commission will temporarily waive tariffs on medical equipment | Pool photo by Martin Schutt/AFP via Getty Images
Bulgaria this week passed an order imposing the obligation to wear face masks, only to