In its short but brief tragic history, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has left humanity no other clues than its lethal devastation of populations and its sickening of millions and global economic paralysis. In a world backed by hundreds of years of scientific knowledge and research, no cure has materialised. There is no dependable therapies and no vaccines.
COVID-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. The health authorities are unanimous that the quickest and most effective response to the outbreak is the use of face masks as an additional layer of physical distancing to help block the spread of those respiratory droplets from person to person. The wearing of masks complements the general hygiene of frequent washing of hands with soap and water, the social distancing of keeping two metres between persons at all times to ensure respiratory droplets do not reach and infect the nearest person.
The efficacy of the mask has been validated by both science and common sense. The fewness of the fatalities in some countries illustrates the point. And there is unanimity that masks are the one aspect that have made a difference and proved most reliable to halt the spread of the virus. Indeed, the doctors have argued that if masks have been adopted early in the United States, half of the fatalities in that country would have been alive today. The questions then arise: what should be done to Nigerians who do not wear masks? What penalties would be appropriate and how would they be implemented?
A cursory check reveals that at least 50 countries have mandated the use of face masks. To many nations, like China, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, masks come as second nature based on their experiences with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also began in China in 2002. Similarly, the H1N1 virus or Swine Flu which circulates as seasonal flu, equipped some countries with experience on how to react promptly. Nations vary in the sanctions they impose for not wearing masks and they range from the clearly unreasonable—four to 10 years prison sentence or 12,000-60,000 Ghanaian Cedis or both by Ghana; to the $55,000 fine by Qatar or, for that matter, the N200,000 fine and 14 days quarantine prescribed by the Cross River State of Nigeria; to obvious slaps on the wrists like the 2000 Rupees (roughly $25);100 pounds fine prescribed by the UK government to $500 fine in Miami, Florida, USA, to the N10,000 fine in Anambra State or the 10,000 euros prescribed by Germany,
Nigerians may not agree on how to punish those who disobey the rule to wear masks, but they agree on the necessity of the masks. It is the surest way to stop spreading the virus. Just as capital punishment in various forms and the firing squad did not end murders and armed robberies, it is also unlikely that legally prescribed punishment would stop Nigerians who do not want to wear the face masks. We think public enlightenment campaigns on radio, television and newspapers appealing to the common sense of the citizen and his patriotism and the need for public safety will win over with time. Most Nigerians wish to do the right thing given the circumstances, especially if leaders lead by example. The Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu, has been exemplary. He wears the mask dutifully along with his cabinet and advisers. Nigerian leaders should follow his example and wear the mask. They should not try to emulate US President Donald Trump whose disastrous handling of the pandemic has caused America to have the highest number of fatalities. The federal and state governments should provide these masks free for Nigerian citizens, giving each at least three face masks. These masks can be manufactured at less than N20 a piece.
Indeed, it is said that they can be mass produced at N15 each and these masks would cost less than N100 million, which is like a drop in the bucket. The government having provided these masks would find it easier to get every citizen to wear them.
A national face mask programme would cut fatalities by 80 per cent. It would cut hospitalisation by 60 per cent and would create a sense of security and facilitate the reopening of the economy, markets and schools. It would impose on Nigerians the responsibility for the safety of their neighbours and themselves. If everyone wears the mask, it signals the unity of the country to pursue a common purpose of defeating the virus.