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All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jun 13, 2020 4:05 AM 8 min read

They’re everywhere we look nowadays (though probably still not as omnipresent as necessary). The new normal of our abnormal times. 

Face masks are the ambassadors of the zeitgeist and from the looks of it...they’re here to stay.

A new modeling study out of Cambridge and Greenwich universities has suggested that with 100% protective mask usage i.e. If each one of us use a face mask regularly, a second or third wave of COVID-19 can be avoided. This underpins the importance of these masks and how they will play a pivotal role in deciding when the COVID-19 pandemic would end (and how many more lives would it claim).

In this article, we’ll break through the filters of the world of face masks and try to understand their uses, their drawbacks, their variants, their maintenance and how exactly did they become the world’s most coveted commodity.

A Brief Overview of Face Masks

Anatomy of a Face Mask

First off, a “face mask” is a loose-fitting mask that covers your nose and mouth and has ear loops, ties or bands to fix it around the back of your head. Some masks are reusable, others should be disposed of after one-time usage. 

Face masks are usually multi-layered, with filters within them that block viral particles. Typically, the filters become less effective when the mask is washed or used multiple times (provided the mask is not a disposable one in the first place).

Masks can be used with face shields, medical goggles, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

How Face Masks Work

Face masks are primarily to protect others around you rather than just yourself. If you have the coronavirus or someone around you does, then the mask shields most of the droplets that flow into the air when you speak, laugh, sneeze or cough. Thereby, by blocking the droplets’ spread (which is a fundamental way in which COVID-19 spreads), it protects those in the vicinity from contracting the virus. It could also discourage you from touching your face now and then, which is also a way through which the virus spreads.


Types of Face Masks

N95 respirator masks

They are tight-fitting, reusable and filter out 95% or more of the smallest particles in the air. Their supply is limited, so they are recommended to be used only by healthcare professionals and frontline workers.

All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
N95 respirator masks are reserved primarily for healthcare professionals and frontline workers.

Surgical masks

These are usually the blue masks with white borders. They fit loosely and shield against the large droplets, but they're too loose to protect against all germs. They are usually not reusable.

All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
A surgical mask.

Cloth masks

Due to the limited supply of medical-grade masks, health authorities in different countries have recommended the development and usage of homemade masks because, well, something is better than nothing. Cloth masks are usually made up of cotton and can be relatively effective if made properly. Their advantages are that they are low-cost and can be reusable, but medical-grade masks tend to offer better protection. If you want to make a face mask at home, here’s an explainer.

All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Due to the scarcity in mask supply, governments around the world have asked citizens to make face maks at home if they can and use them.

Activated carbon masks

These are the gray masks with white filters that some of us use to protect ourselves from smog and air pollution. But these aren’t recommended against COVID-19: they can trap barely 10-20% of viral particles. 


How to Use Face Masks

When donning face masks, keep the following points in mind:

  1. Your face mask should fit your face perfectly - it should neither be too tight nor too loose-fitting.
  2. It should cover both your mouth and your nose (else, it’s protecting nobody).
  3. Take care that it is not overused or unwashed, and if it is a disposable mask not reused at all (else it could lead to self-contamination).
  4. Obviously, your mask should have no pores.
  5. Don’t touch the mask while wearing it.
  6. Before wearing a mask, wash your hands with hand wash or soap for at least 20 seconds; repeat the same process after you remove your mask.
  7. If your mask is a reusable one, make sure to wash it regularly. You can use detergent for this and dry it in direct sunlight. Follow these steps.


Who Should Use Face Masks

The official guidelines regarding mask usage vary across the world (we’ll discuss why in a minute), but the recommendation from the scientific community is overwhelmingly in favour of wearing face masks in public places. Everyone above the age of two who is out in public should be wearing masks, especially if they’re symptomatic and in places where it’s difficult to maintain a six-feet distance from others.


Who Shouldn’t Use Face Masks

There are some for whom wearing face masks is discouraged without additional supervision or help. They include:

  • Children under two years of age
  • People who have trouble breathing
  • Someone who’s unconscious
  • Someone who can’t move or take off a mask without help


Wearing Face Masks Around the World

While the expert advice is predominantly in favour of wearing face masks to contain COVID-19, the official word is more...mixed.

This may be because of two main reasons. One, the World Health Organisation (WHO). And two, sociocultural differences.

The WHO's Recommendations

The UN health body has been widely criticised from many quarters for its response to the pandemic. Regarding face masks, its position has dangerously vacillated. The WHO initially recommended face masks only for healthcare workers and said there was “not enough evidence” to require healthy people to wear masks. On April 4th, it slightly diluted its position, saying masks “may” be used. Then, on June 5th, the organisation did a complete U-turn and said it now recommended the usage of face masks in public spaces.

All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 Pandemic
The degree of face mask usage varies around the world. While only a handful of countries still don't recommend it, most advice its usage or mandate it.

Sociocultural Differences

It’s easier to ensure mask-compliance in some countries than others. If you’re an Indian, American or European, seeing everyone covering their faces might seem strange, even apocalyptic. But in some countries, especially those in East and Southeast Asia, face masks were woven into the cultural fabric long before the current pandemic emerged (Read: A Brief History of Wearing Face Masks in Public).

In these countries - like Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam - face masks were universally used for years as a means to protect oneself against air pollution. Memories of the SARS epidemic of 2003 (a previous coronavirus outbreak) is still fresh in places like Hong Kong, where masks became more than PPE - they also became a symbol of personal hygiene, social responsibility and solidarity with healthcare workers.

Indeed, in these countries not wearing masks in public can be looked down upon as bad manners. And in recent months, this feeling has solidified: some countries like China and Singapore have passed laws threatening fines and jail time for those who flout mask-wearing norms.

All You Need to Know About Face Masks During the COVID-19 PandemicIt’s no surprise then than many of the countries that have flattened the curve are those where maskwearing is already a common, mainstream practice. But it’s also important to note that merely mandating masks won’t do the trick: the countries that contained COVID-19 also engaged in widespread testing, robust contact tracing and quarantine and social distancing measures.

(As of June 8th, only a handful of countries don’t recommend face masks at all. Most either recommend it in varying degrees or mandate its usage.)


The Economics of Face Masks


At the onset of the global pandemic, a staggering 85% of global medical mask-production capacity was controlled by China. The country was also the major producer of polypropylene fibers that filter out dust and pathogens in the N95 respirators. China is also the single largest exporter of nonwoven fabrics and a major source of parts required to make ventilators.

Here’s an explainer of just how central China is to the mask economy - and why this monopoly is downright dangerous. China produces more than half of the world’s “meltblown”, a kind of fabric that is important in face masks. In early February, Beijing slashed meltblown exports to stockpile it for domestic usage. This went unnoticed in the international press at the time but it “put the fear of God” in anyone familiar with meltblown’s importance - and the consequences of what was about to follow. China’s ban was lifted in the next month, but by then the supply-chain disruption had already reached far and wide, and the repercussions were being felt in overcrowded hospitals and skyrocketing death tolls around the world.


As the pandemic escalated, the face mask economy spun out of control. Price caps, price gouging, bidding wars, mass hoarding, mass shortages - it was utter chaos.

Countries like the Netherlands, Finland, Spain, Turkey and Canada said large chunks of the PPE imports they had received from China were sub-standard and unusable (also, already paid for). At the same time, accusations that the US was diverting mask supplies meant for other countries to its own rent the air.

The face mask supply chain has begun to diversify of late, however, as countries have begun mass-production of PPE on their own, often tapping the resources of unrelated industries like auto and fashion. But demand continues to exceed supply, especially when it comes to N95 respirators.


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