“No,” say the Swiss government and the World Health Organization (WHO); “yes,” say some European governments and some Swiss politicians; “yes and no,” say many opinionated swissinfo.ch readers.
Since April 1, shoppers entering supermarkets in neighbouring Austria have been given a face mask which they must wear; the plan is to extend the measure to all food shops and chemists of a certain size by April 6. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia it’s compulsory to wear one anywhere in public, and in many parts of East Asia almost everyone wears a mask by default.
Although Switzerland has one of the highest number of coronavirus cases per million inhabitants in Europe, the Swiss authorities don’t think much of this.
“It hasn’t been proven that distributing masks to the public protects people,” said Daniel Koch, head of communicable diseases at the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), at a press conference on March 17.
Koch has repeatedly expressed his opposition to the widespread wearing of protective masks in the population. In an interview with Swiss public television, SRF, on March 27 he said that wearing a mask could even give people a false sense of security.
“It’s clear that, wearing a mask, you feel you are better protected. And that probably results in some people paying less attention to other precautionary measures – they wash their hands less, touch their mask and face more, don’t keep their distance,” he said.
‘Wasting a mask’
Not everyone is happy with this. On March 22, the labour union Unia led a protest outside a Geneva branch of Migros, one of Switzerland’s largest supermarket chains, highlighting the unease of many employees who said they had been prevented by Migros from wearing masks or gloves.
“These are the measures recommended by the Federal Office of Public Health,” Migros spokesman Tristan Cerf told Swiss public television, RTS. “It may appear surprising not to have masks or gloves, but those measures aren’t effective.”
Koch’s comments do indeed reflect the official Swiss position: surgical or respirator masks should be worn only by people examining or caring for people who have tested positive for Covid-19, who have symptoms or who are in a risk group.
The FOPH explicitly says that “healthy people should not wear hygiene masks (surgical masks) in public. If you are in good health, they do not protect you effectively from infection with respiratory viruses”.
This echoes the position of the WHO, which stresses that “if you are not ill or looking after someone who is ill, then you are wasting a mask”. It provides further advice on when and how to use masks.
However, several Swiss politicians across the political spectrum think the government has got it wrong.
“If there were enough masks, it would make sense to make it temporarily obligatory to wear a mask – for example when going shopping or using public transport,” said Bastien Girod from the left-wing Green Party.
Girod accuses the FOPH of not being transparent enough in its communication. “Since masks are in short supply, the health office is informing people strategically. If masks didn’t help, hospital staff wouldn’t use them.”
Verena Herzog from the right-wing Swiss People’s Party said it was “incomprehensible” that the health office repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of hygiene masks.
“This is a pure white lie because the compulsory stockpiles are not filled,” she said. “Hygiene masks hold back viruses and are logically a huge help, even if there’s no 100% protection,” she said.
The FOPH itself explains that one of the means of transmission of the novel coronavirus is droplet infection. “If one person sneezes or coughs, the virus can be transported directly to the mucous membranes in the nose, mouth or eyes of other people.”
Koch himself has admitted that the government doesn’t have enough masks to impose a Slovakia-style compulsory wearing of masks, but he insists that Switzerland has enough for professional health workers. “The government has about 17 million and more are always being bought,” he told SRF. “But we currently need about two million a day.”
Andreas Glarner from the People’s Party said he was aware that wearing a mask was not reliable protection against Covid-19, “but if everyone who is possibly infected had had to wear a mask from the beginning, we surely could have prevented some infections”. He said that if there had been enough masks, this would have been the government strategy.
Many – but certainly not all – swissinfo.ch readers agree with Glarner. “Simply foolish and bad management not to enforce the wearing of masks in these times of high risk, it would slow down the infection rate greatly,” said RR.
Wearing a mask “is no more than some sort of attempt at virtue signalling. If you are already infected and are wearing it to protect others, then you should be in isolation. Masks are designed to protect others from your germs and not vice versa”, reckoned Suze.
“Regards shortage of masks, let’s be clear. This is due to the lack of anticipation and prevention of the governmental authorities. People who wear them are just reasonable and socially responsible,” said Common Sense.
“It’s pretty selfish for healthy people to be taking them away from people who actually need them,” countered Sam.
“Mr Koch knows [wearing a mask] works but does not admit it while we have not enough masks to go around, and therefore we are being lied to as to why they do not help,” concluded Huttuman.
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