As the provinces and federal government move towards reopening the economy, we need to make sure we are doing everything possible to reduce community transmission of COVID-19. That means our governments need a comprehensive strategy to ensure the supply and distribution of masks to frontline workers. But it also means making sure the broader population, especially in large urban centres, also has full access to safe and effective masks.
Many Canadians with connections to East Asia likely remember that in January and February, we were in the middle of a heated debate about the efficacy of medical masks in combatting the coronavirus. Health authorities were reluctant to encourage mask usage, perhaps due to concerns about shortages for frontline workers.
But now there is a growing consensus that a comprehensive mask policy would help in the fight against the virus. Masks are not a panacea, but more and more evidence suggests they play a key role in reducing COVID-19 transmission. Here in Canada, people are sewing cloth masks at home and sharing them with their neighbours, vulnerable communities, and frontline workers who lack access to higher-grade masks.
In East Asia, the wearing of medical masks has long been an accepted part of public health practices. Population-wide mask usage, extensive tracking and tracing, and other strategies have helped countries in this region contain the coronavirus without having to resort to wholesale shutdowns and the economic and social damage that results.
People there are not wearing homemade cloth masks — instead, they use three-layer surgical masks, which are widely understood to be effective in trapping droplets, preventing wearers from spreading the virus to others.
Preparing for the next wave
A cloth mask is better than no mask at all, but Canada should do better. An effective government needs to ensure that safe medical or surgical masks (or at least masks with high filtration) are accessible to both frontline workers and the broader public, especially in in urban areas with higher density and more confined spaces, such as public transit and malls, where the virus is most likely to be spread.
Think of what crowded subways and buses would look like without masks. Already, TTC workers have demanded policies to make sure passengers wear masks.
In sharp contrast to the proactive approach to masks in East Asia is the situation of our neighbours to the south. The U.S continues to lead the world in COVID-19 cases, with deaths exceeding 80,000. Despite the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation to wear masks, significant segments of American society remain vehemently opposed to them: from President Donald Trump and VP Mike Pence making high-profile public appearances while nonchalantly barefaced to gun-toting locals attacking stores for mandatory mask requirements, with assaults on frontline workers and even the murder of a security guard.
The situation in Canada, while not as bad as that of the U.S., remains dire. Our case count is slowly declining, but as experts have noted, once we reopen we will likely be in for another wave of COVID-19, perhaps even more deadly if we do not take proactive measures.
Education and access
A mask strategy will require a cultural shift. Stigma against wearing masks preceded the pandemic, and many people in Chinese and other Asian communities have faced scrutiny, abuse and at times outright violence for wearing masks since the beginning of COVID-19. Our governments need to immediately initiate public education to combat stigma against mask usage while instructing the populace on appropriate and safe mask-usage methods.
On top of that, we also need to ensure that the whole population can easily and affordably access a consistent supply of medical masks. Masks, like vaccines, are most useful when we all use them. Governments and health authorities in Asia have utilized innovative strategies to provide access to medical masks. China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and others have made sure their entire populace (most of which lives in high-density areas) can access low-cost or free masks. In many locales, residents merely need to show up at their local pharmacy to get them.
By having the state provide strong leadership on mask procurement and distribution, we can prevent price gouging, reduce costs, and provide universal and affordable access to these key public health tools.
Canada cannot afford to get the mask issue wrong again. We need a population-wide strategy that protects all working people and the broader public. This cannot be achieved through police enforcement, which in the U.S. has simply led to a continuation of white supremacist policing. Instead, it requires solid health policy and, as in Asia, the understanding that such action is rooted in care for our communities and our collective well-being.
COVID-19 has, in many ways, tested the capacity of state responses and effective governance. Ensuring a Canada-wide strategy for masks, especially in urban areas, is key to helping us to continue to weather this storm.
Justin Kong is the executive director of the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter. Tsui Yee Wu is president of the Chinese Canadian Nurses Association of Ontario.