The Sunday Times
RUNNING FOR COVER
WHY FACE MASKS ARE HERE TO STAY
IT’S a future none of us could have ever imagined, like something out of an apocalyptic Hollywood film. Wearing a mask to go into a shop or get on a train becoming the new normal to protect ourselves from a mostly unknown but greatly feared virus.
Except this isn’t the future, at least not in Melbourne, the UK, the US and much of Europe and Asia. It is now. It’s the present — and it’s coming to WA.
A face mask, teamed with social distancing and hand hygiene, is set to be a crucial tool in helping us climb out of the coronavirus black hole that is destroying lives, livelihoods and tearing families apart.
With face masks the new ubiquitous accessory for all Australians, their manufacture could become a industry worth more than $50 million a year to the economy.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this week the wearing of face masks could become more commonplace and widespread shutdowns in response to new outbreaks were not sustainable. As Victoria tries to stem its latest outbreak, all aged and home care workers in the State have been told it is compulsory for them to wear them at work.
Melburnians have already been advised to wear face masks in situations where social distancing is not possible and Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has not ruled out mandating their use in Victoria in outbreak hotspots and on public transport. Barbara Nattabi, a lecturer in population and global health at the University of WA, said West Australians are also likely to have to don them when border restrictions are lifted, which she expects to happen because people do not want a prolonged lockdown.
“It has taken its toll and it’s not just economic. People have been separated from family. Human beings are social. Nobody has an appetite for another lockdown, so I think that governments will push hard now for other measures to reduce the risk of transmission,” she said. Dr Nattabi said masks were increasingly being seen as a way to bring down the overall risk of contracting and spreading coronavirus, used alongside social distancing and hand washing.
“The major thing about coronavirus, which is quite alarming, is that a lot of people are asymptomatic. The mask not only protects us from people who obviously have symptoms but, if masks become a general rule, they will also be protecting us from those who have the virus and
A lot of people don’t want to be vulnerable, and they want to appear that they’re not at risk, so it might be a sort of macho image. UWA global health lecturer BARBARA NATTABI
don’t have symptoms,” she said.
After initial reluctance mainly because of inadequate stocks, the world is coming around to the use of face masks to combat coronavirus. The World Health Organisation updated its guidance on masks last month, saying their use can protect healthy wearers and prevent those infected from spreading COVID-19.
An increasing number of experts believe it can be transmitted by airborne particles, which can float in the air for hours, and not just by bigger respiratory droplets, which are expelled in coughs and sneezes and fall quickly to the ground.
If they are right about the airborne transmission of COVID-19, it has significant implications for the efficacy of current measures we are using to stop the spread.
It means masks could be necessary indoors, even when people are socially distanced.
Dr Nattabi is clear that, when WA opens its borders, people will need to wear masks to protect themselves and others.
“Once you’ve opened the borders, we’re going to have a problem because we don’t have immunity. We don’t have a vaccine. We are all still susceptible to the virus just like it was at the very beginning,” she said.
“So what do we do if we want the economy to go back and people to go back to work? There are going to have to be measures put in place. If you want to open a hard border, there are certain things you’re going to have to have, masks being one of them.”
Mask-wearing is already far more commonplace in Asian countries. Dr Nattabi said this was partly because recent epidemics have prepared the public, but also because of their culture.
“Asian cultures are generally more acquiescent and they’re not as individualistic as, for example, US society. They also trust their government and authorities more, so are more likely to wear masks,” she said.
US President Donald Trump wore a face mask in public for the first time this week, after previously downplaying their importance and even implying doing so was strange.
“A lot of people don’t want to be vulnerable, and they want to appear that they’re not at risk, so it might be a sort of macho image,” Dr Nattabi said.
But she said that Mr Trump’s authority would mean that his decision to now wear a mask would encourage other Americans to follow suit and the same needed to happen here to encourage Australians to get into the habit.
“I think in Australia, what will help us more is our leaders wearing masks. But also if young people, young influencers especially, wear masks, they can influence other young people to wear masks,” Dr Nattabi said.
Noting that Mr Trump wore a “beautiful mask” featuring a gold presidential seal, Dr Nattabi said enabling them to be a form of cultural expression, with different patterns and slogans for example, would also encourage their widespread use.
“I think the onus is on the political leaders and other leaders to get the message right. Why are we wearing masks? Who is being protected? When should we wear them? How should we wear them?” she said.
“I think the messaging must be got right. But also the political leaders have to be seen to be doing what they’re telling other people to do.” The UK is currently in deep debate over the extent of a new law on mandatory mask-wearing in shops, which comes into force on Thursday. Britons already have to wear face masks on public transport. France will make face masks compulsory in all indoor public spaces from August, while several other European countries have already mandated their use in shops.
WA Health Minister Roger Cook said masks can help stop the spread of COVID-19 from an infected person, but the current health advice was that it was not necessary to wear them in public here.
“At the moment there is no need to wear masks in public, but it’s an individual choice. People can wear masks if they want to,” he said. Mr Cook said everyone entering WA was being asked to bring their own masks, including essential workers who have an exemption from the hard border restrictions to enter the State. “Those who have met the exemptions to carry out essential work are required to wear masks when working,” he said.
The rise in use and importance of the humble face mask, which was an imported product in Australia pre-coronavirus, has been jumped on as an opportunity by struggling businesses in our depressed economy.
Health industry analyst Liam Harrison, from market researcher IBISWorld, said the surge in global demand has resulted in wholesalers struggling to meet demand in Australia. He said the industry was estimated to be worth $2 million to $3 million in 2019-20 but this could rocket to $10 million to $15 million this financial year.
“If outbreaks continue across the country, and wholesalers importing masks continue to be unable to satisfy demand, the industry could grow in excess of $50 million, particularly if face masks become mandatory in outbreak areas such as the Victorian hotspots,” he said.
Mr Harrison also said wearing the masks had other economic benefits by reducing the impact of coronavirus.
“Economic impacts are also lessened with high face mask usage as the risk of spreading is severely reduced, lessening the need for lockdown and other restriction measures during outbreaks,” he said.
“Frequent wearing of face masks can assist in limiting the spread of COVID-19 and other pathogens such as the flu and the common cold.
“However, the physical discomfort of wearing a mask is likely to result in many individuals opting out
of wearing a mask except in dire circumstances, such as the current restrictions in the Victorian hotspots.”
The unprecedented demand has led to Australia’s only major manufacturer of surgical face masks, MedCon, which is based in Shepparton, Victoria, to ramp up its production 2500 per cent and for other manufacturers, which do not usually make face masks, to change their production to meet the demand.
Before the pandemic, Med-Con was using one 40-year-old machine to produce two million masks annually, which was just 5 per cent of Australia’s supply. But Project MedCon meant the old machine was reverse-engineered and recreated by automation company Foodmach to create six more machines and boost the company’s annual output to a staggering 160 million masks.
Med-Con will now supply the Federal Government with 59 million masks by the end of this year.
South Australian packaging company Detmold Group switched to mask-making and will supply 100 million surgical and respirator masks to the national medical stockpile and a further 45 million for the SA Government.
Federal Industry Minister Karen Andrews said there had been almost a 30-fold increase in Australia’s mask production capability since the pandemic began and more than 200 million will be made between now and the end of the year.
“This has not only strengthened the supply of these critical items but has also created more than 200 new Australian jobs at a time when they are so desperately needed,” she said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt told The Sunday Times that more than half a billion surgical masks and 166 million P2/N95 respirator masks have been ordered for the rest of the year.
“These have been ordered from a range of international and domestic suppliers. This recognises the importance of having domestic supply and mitigates risk, as well as the benefit to onshore investment and production capacity,” Mr Hunt said.
More than 295 million masks have already been added to the national medical stockpile since March. The McGowan Government currently has 5.5 million surgical masks and 1.1 million respirator masks in its stockpile, which are prioritised for use in WA’s public hospitals.
This week, more than 1.3 million surgical masks and 111,642 respirator masks had been ordered, but the WA Health Department stated there was only “medium” confidence the supply would be continued.
A WA Health Department spokesman said it was not planning to supply big numbers of masks to the public, but if mask usage was recommended, it would help other government agencies and service providers, as well as “high-priority public buildings and activities”.
Moving to mask production kept staff in work at WA company Saferight, which specialises in equipment for working at heights or in confined spaces and conducts training.
“When coronavirus hit, no one was interested in that. Everyone
was interested in breathing, so we swung our textile manufacturing, which isn’t in China because I like to be able to walk through the manufacture and check the quality, and decided to make reusable face masks,” Saferight chief executive Mack McCormack said.
Mr McCormack estimated they had sold around 2000 of the $55 masks, which can have an additional filter inserted into them, and sales had picked up again recently after the latest outbreak in Victoria. “What we found was that the face masks kicked off. Our staff would not have had work if not for the face masks. We have the ability to manufacture them here,” he said.
Joanie Justice has run her own company, Perth Clothing Alterations, from her home for 10 years, but her full-time work completely dried up when coronavirus restrictions started.
“I had to think of some other way of making some money because I had no income,” she said.
Ms Justice began making cotton, double-layered face masks for adults and children, and has now sold more than 400 at $10 and $8 respectively. While her alterations work is now back to the level it was before the pandemic, demand for her face masks is also increasing.
Ms Justice said she believed the Federal Government had been slow in encouraging people to cover up. “In Asia, they’ve always worn face masks and they do it out of courtesy for everyone else. We should be doing that here ourselves. If they are sick themselves, they don’t want to pass it on to other people,” she said. “The Australian Government was so against people wearing a face mask because of a shortage of PPE (personal protective equipment). That helps the healthcare workers but people should have been wearing something. These face masks are not as effective as PPE but they are quite effective. Not only that, it also stops you from touching your face because you’ve got something covering it.”