As a healthcare worker, I am horrified by the refusal of Nigerians to wear face masks. This is despite several warnings from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC). Even when government has made the wearing of face masks compulsory.
Pray, how many more people have to die before people begin to take COVID-19 seriously? People feel that wearing of face mask is a burden. But the mask is there to protect a person infected with the coronavirus from infecting others.
This is because it has been realized that about a third to a half of infections are from asymptomatic people. Social distancing, also called physical distancing, which is keeping a distance of at least 2 meters from the other person can serve, but it’s difficult to maintain in a place that is crowded. Only a mask can reduce the likelihood of the virus moving from an infected person to a person who is not infected.
In the fight of the pandemic, we have seen that lockdown leads to economic cost. But masks are relatively cheap. An article in the Lancet endorses the use of masks in the community as a low-cost adjunct to social distancing and hand-washing. According to a British blogger, John Kirkwood “Anyone doubting the benefit of wearing a simple face mask should try reading the Guardian Daily on an iPad for a few days with a mask, and then without one. The amount of screen spatter in the latter case illustrates clearly how well you can protect others from your breath’s particulates.”
To bolster further the case for wearing a mask is a light-scattering experiment at the National Institutes of Health in the US. The researchers used lasers to illuminate and count how many droplets of saliva were thrown into the air by someone talking with a mask, and without a mask. When one of the researchers used a simple cloth face cover, nearly all the droplets were blocked. It’s thought that when the mask is worn it forms humidity, this humidity stops droplets with the virus from forming droplet nuclei, and makes it easier for the cloth material of the mask to prevent droplets crossing.
As the lockdown easing continues, the number of coronavirus cases is on the increase. Isolation centers are full. Hospital beds are being stretched. It may mean nothing if we have the hospitals, the personal protective equipment (PPE) and every other thing needed to do the work, if the healthcare workers are not well enough physically or emotionally, or because they have contracted the coronavirus, and have to stay away from work.
As Bradley A. Dreifuss, an assistant professor of emergency medicine says “When we are understaffed and overworked, when there is no staff to triage patients, when more and more patients are piling up at the emergency department door, the system breaks down, then people break down. You can borrow ventilators (until you can’t) and make more personal protective equipment (we hope). You cannot magically produce more nurses, respiratory therapists, physicians or other professionals.”
It’s annoying when people won’t wear masks or won’t maintain physical distancing, because it is not convenient for them. Or, because they see that a political office-holder is not wearing a mask. Why not first wear your own mask, and then wait for the next elections to vote out that person? We saw how the coronavirus killed people, including healthcare workers in many parts of the world. In Nigeria, healthcare workers have also died from the virus.
Several times during consultations in the clinic I have had to either tell a patient to wear their face mask, or remind them that their face mask was not covering their nose and mouth.
During one of such clinics, I attended to a patient who said he had survived COVID-19. And had tested negative after. Then a fifth patient after him came with her mask under her chin. I told her she needed to wear her mask properly for me to attend to her. She pulled the mask up. Then, I told her that I had attended to a person who had survived COVID-19, and that the person sat exactly where she was sitting. She sprang up like a jack-in-the-box. And became restless, pacing back and forth. She said she would stand for the consultation. I tried reassuring her that everything was okay. But that I needed to remind her why she had to wear her mask. She sat down hunched, and I could still sense her uneasiness. I knew she couldn’t wait for the consultation to end. After the consultation, she thanked me and assured me she was going to adhere to the advice to use masks, and hurriedly left.
But it didn’t have to get to this.
When you refuse to wear a mask, and observe other health measures, you endanger your life and the lives of others. You endanger the lives of healthcare workers and the lives of their families. And you expect us to risk our own lives to save you. It’s like telling us that our lives and those of our loved ones don’t matter to you.
Healthcare workers are willing to make the sacrifice and render service in this precarious period. As a doctor I took the oath to save lives but the oath also says “I will attend to my own health, well-being, and abilities in order to provide care of the highest standard”.
You must take responsibility for your health and those of others. This means wearing a mask, and wearing it properly. You must also practice physical distancing and proper hand hygiene, to help reduce the spread of the virus. So that coronavirus cases don’t overstretch our hospitals, or deny other patients with other health conditions access to healthcare.
When you do your part in the fight of the coronavirus, even if it causes you some discomfort, it’s a sacrifice you are making for your family, your friends, yourself, your healthcare workers – and for you!
Dr Odoemena, medical practitioner, writes from Lagos