Health Minister Zweli Mkhize has said that masks are one of the best ways to stop the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, contradicting guidance from the World Health Organisation.
The Western Cape Health Department also recently published a statement warning South Africans against wearing gloves and masks during the 21-day lockdown, stating these items can actually help to spread the coronavirus.
The department said that personal protective equipment (PPE) – such as masks and gloves – is scarce and should be used by the appropriate people.
“In general, PPE such as masks and gloves are only needed if you are in direct contact with or caring for a person who is confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19, at home or in a health facility,” the department said.
Wearing PPE when shopping, for example, during lockdown will not protect you from the virus, it said.
“Scientific evidence proves that by wearing a mask, if it is not needed, you may put yourself at higher risk because you fiddle with the mask and then transfer germs from your hands to your face,” it said.
This has led to confusion among South Africans, especially considering statements by the health minister.
Masks are effective – Mkhize
Addressing media this week, Mkhize said that wearing a mask was one of the best ways to protect yourself from the virus.
This conflicts with the statement from the Western Cape Health Department, which argued that masks and gloves may increase the risk of the virus spreading.
“There is no question about the fact that the masks are actually one of the best ways of preventing the spread of the infection,” Mkhize said.
“We recommend them in particular where people have any cough or symptoms and in situations where social distancing is difficult.”
Amendments to the Disaster Management Act published on 31 March 2020 also placed importance on the use of masks, stating that minibus taxis would be able to transport 100% of their listed capacity provided commuters are wearing masks.
If passengers are not wearing masks, minibus taxis may only carry 70% of their listed capacity, the regulations stated.
Masks worn by passengers must be either surgical or N95 respirator masks.
— eNCA (@eNCA) April 1, 2020
Masks do not protect you – WHO
National governments, medical institutions, and online media platforms have looked to the World Health Organisation (WHO) for information about the COVID-19 coronavirus, however.
The WHO states that surgical or medical masks cannot protect against the spread of the coronavirus on their own, and there is no evidence that they protect those who do not have the virus.
“Medical masks… cannot protect against the new coronavirus when used alone,” the organisation said.
“When you wear them, you must combine with hand hygiene and other preventive measures.” It added that wearing a mask is only recommended in specific cases.
“If you have a cough, fever, or difficulty breathing, you should wear a mask and seek medical care. If you do not have these symptoms you do not have to wear masks because there is no evidence that they protect people who are not sick.”
“However, if you are healthy but you are taking care of a person who may be infected with the new coronavirus, you should wear a mask whenever you are in the same room as that person.”
It added that wearing a mask alone can give people a false sense of protection and can even be a source of infection when not used correctly.
Similar warnings have been issued around the wearing of gloves by the public, with the UK’s National Health Service stating there is little evidence that gloves are useful for members of the public.
Additionally, the WHO’s interim guidance on the rational use of PPE states that people without any symptoms do not require any protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
This has left South Africans confused, forcing them to choose between the health advice of the WHO and that of the health minister.