We must also keep in mind that masks are a new thing for all of us except healthcare workers. I am not sure if many people know how to correctly use a mask in order to get effective protection from it. Improper use of a mask such as reusing a disposable mask, inadequate cleaning and sanitisation of a reusable mask, constant touching of the mask while wearing it, sharing of one mask by users can be as harmful as not having a mask.
What then shall we do?
Clearly, most of us cannot afford disposable masks because of the prohibitive cost. The world is looking for surgical and N95 masks for frontline health workers. We have no business trying to compete with the health workers for these masks. Logically, the most affordable option is the home-made reusable mask.
There is, therefore, urgent need to come up with visuals on how to make an effective reusable mask at home. This would include information on what type of material is best, how many layers are needed, what part of the face should be covered by the mask. Someone must urgently do homework on whether cloth masks provide adequate protection and advise the public accordingly. If they do provide protection, what form should they take.
Those of us who have access to information might take this for granted, but this might not be that obvious among the poorest communities. There is also need for information on the correct and effective use of a mask. This should include the number of times a reusable mask can be worn before it needs to be washed and ironed.
The police officers manning roadblocks can play a very positive role in educating the public.
Instead of just enforcing the public health regulation on masks for everyone, they should be educating and encouraging the public. All forms of media have a role to play in ensuring the general public understands the personal benefit of correctly using a mask to slow down the spread of the virus.
At the moment, all we are hearing from the media is information on the criminalisation of not wearing a mask in public. When the media, with their power of influence, focus on the illegality of appearing in public without a mask and the penalty that such an offence attracts, the public concentrates on perfunctory compliance rather than real effective self-protection.
Compliance as an end in itself breeds deceit and more importantly desperate use of substandard non-effective materials to cover one’s face and nose. This obviously does not produce the desired results.
The Ministry of Health and Child Care has done well in using social media to encourage people to stay home, social media can also be used to educate people about masks. Social protection packages by both government and its partners must include masks to cater for those who just can’t afford.
Last week I was in one of the rural districts of Zimbabwe, I saw first-hand some of the ineffective masks that people are buying and using. As always happens in such situations some people have quickly identified an opportunity to make money out of the desperate public. I saw people wearing very thin single layer pieces of cloth in the name of masks. I would recommend that the Ministry of Health and Child Care take on the role of providing guidelines on how to make a reusable mask and of being the certifying authority for masks. Any mask producer must have a certificate from the ministry allowing them to do so after passing the requisite test.
There is also need to educate the public on using other alternatives to masks. Every woman has at least one scarf or tie cloth (dhuku/iqhiye) in her wardrobe. Let’s teach them how to use these as masks. This might appear like common sense but it is not, the complication is on how the piece of cloth is used for it to serve the requisite purpose. We do need to harness the policy on masks and educate the public so that they understand the objective behind this public health regulation — to teach them how to make their own masks, how to assess a mask on the market before they buy and how to use what they have to protect themselves if they can’t afford a mask.
We will beat this! Sibusisiwe Marunda is the Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative Zimbabwe country director. She writes in her personal capacity.
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