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Masks are not a panacea but are the step we needed to take

The photos that have emerged on the media of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic are remarkable in that everyone was wearing a mask. But that was more than 100 years ago and none of us has personal memories of that time. Wearing a mask to protect others when we have a respiratory infection is just not a tradition in Australia as it is in many Asian countries.

But here we are in the middle of 2020 and there are more than 3000 active cases of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 in Victoria, most of them in metropolitan Melbourne. The mandating of face masks when outside one’s home may have come as a shock to some Melburnians. Quite appropriately, the Victorian government used a phased approach to masks, first recommending them and then requiring them.

Australians wearing masks during the Spanish flu outbreak.

Australians wearing masks during the Spanish flu outbreak.Credit:The Mirror

My own experience from walking the streets of my Melbourne neighbourhood was that in the first phase many people, probably more than 50 per cent, did not adopt the recommendation. That’s probably no different to a scenario where seat belts were not mandated; adherence would probably be sub-optimal. As with laws around seat belts, bicycle helmets, not drinking and driving, and not smoking indoors, mandating the wearing of face masks is a legitimate, ethical and legal public health measure designed to protect us.

So why has it taken so long to require that face masks be worn in Melbourne? Early in the pandemic, the global evidence of their effectiveness was not strong. However, on June 1, the prominent medical journal The Lancet published a review of studies that assessed the impact of face masks on the spread of coronaviruses. The review found that wearing a mask reduced transmission by 85 per cent, with a narrow margin of error. A number of other studies, including laboratory experiments, have demonstrated how wearing a face mask reduces transmission of the coronavirus.

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