To wear or not to wear: The face mask quandary 

MoH encourages people to wear face mask 

Younten Tshedup

Should we wear face masks or not? This is the question with some wearing all the time while some not even in public places.

In the absence of a community transmission, many say that there is no risk and therefore, it was not necessary to use masks.

In the capital, besides making it mandatory in public spaces such as the Centenary Farmer’s Market and national referral hospital including public transportations, the health ministry still ‘recommends’ public to wear face masks.

However, with the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) changing guidelines on the pandemic, the ministry is now asking people to use face masks, especially in public spaces.

Health Minister Dechen Wangmo said that with uncertainties surrounding the novel coronavirus, the only scientifically proven and effective method to prevent the spread of the pandemic was by following public health measures – wearing face masks, regularly washing hands and maintaining physical distance.

“The only weapon that we know for sure would work are the preventive measures. These measures have proven effective for many decades,” she said.

Lyonpo said that the question of local transmission is not about if but when and how. “Local transmission can happen anytime. The question is in what modality it would come. It’s difficult for us to predict which is why prevention is very important.”

 

Affordability and accessibility 

Unlike a few months ago when pharmacies ran out of face masks for weeks, today most of these outlets have adequate stock.

A staff of Norling Pharmacy in Thimphu said that there are hardly any customer buying face masks today. On an average, the pharmacy sells around 70 pieces of masks a day.

Pharmacist with Kuenphen Pharmacy, Tika Ram Mongar said the sale of face masks is ‘moderate’ as other grocery operators bought them in bulk. “There is no rush unlike during the initial days of the pandemic. Today we have regular supply but not many buyers.”

The pharmacies also receive locally made face masks from agencies like the Youth Development Fund and Draktsho.

Lyonpo Dechen Wangmo said that before recommending people to use face mask, the economic affairs ministry carried out an assessment on the availability of masks in the dzongkhags.

“I’m sure there are a few segment of population that cannot afford the masks. For these groups the ministry is more than happy to facilitate,” she said.

The ministry has asked people who cannot afford the mask to register themselves by calling the Covid-19 hotline 2121.

Comparing the cost of a pouch of doma (beetle nut) with a face mask, Lyonpo questioned if it was really the affordability factor or priority of individuals. “People are willing to pay Nu 20 for a pouch of doma but not for a face mask costing the same.”

A piece of face mask costs anywhere between Nu 15 and Nu 20 while the most expensive ones are about Nu 100.

Lyonpo said that it is absurd having to force people to use face masks.  “Monitoring every individual is not possible and we cannot post kudungs (discipline masters) for every person,” she said.  “Your health is your responsibility.”

Recently the minister also posted a picture of herself wearing face mask on Facebook with a hashtag ‘MyGyenkhu’ calling people use mask to protect themselves, their families and the community.

“The science is evolving for Covid-19 but let’s not wait for the signs to evolve. We really don’t know where is the end to this pandemic or for that matter how it would end,” she said.

“People talk about post Covid but I don’t think there would be a thing as ‘post Covid era’. This would probably continue even next year so the best thing is to live with it and be able to protect yourself. And this will come only if you take personal responsibility.”

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