The Sunday Times



- Angela Pownall reports

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.”

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 ??  ?? Taking cover: (Clockwise from left) Joanie Justice with one of her masks, Saferight chief Mack McCormack, Victoria’s Med-Con factory, Donald Trump, and Sean Darcy and Cam McCarthy of the Fremantle Dockers after flying in last week.
Taking cover: (Clockwise from left) Joanie Justice with one of her masks, Saferight chief Mack McCormack, Victoria’s Med-Con factory, Donald Trump, and Sean Darcy and Cam McCarthy of the Fremantle Dockers after flying in last week.
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