Since the start of the crisis the official Belgian line has always been: mouth masks are essential for health workers, but that there is little point to wearing a mask in the street. Keeping others at a distance and good hand hygiene are far more important to combat corona. People who are ill must stay at home.
The World Health Organisation maintains there is no clear evidence that the wearing of a mask by a large section of the population is an advantage. Wearing a mouth mask the wrong way could even jeopardise public health. However, the president of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control spoke of people in the US and Europe not wearing a mask as a “big mistake”.
Prof Van Ranst says: “You can’t say that wearing a mouth mask is totally pointless. Wearing a mask in the street is pointless, but a mouth mask will form a bigger obstacle for the virus in places where you are bound to encounter a lot of people”.
“Wearing a mouth mask may be meaningful, but you need to have one. This is where things went wrong in many countries including Belgium. There weren’t enough masks, even for hospital workers and family doctors. The situation remains precarious. If you then say ‘We all have to wear a mask’…We simply don’t have them.”
Prof Van Ranst denies that there is now greater insight about this issue as other points of view are surfacing: “There are locations where a mask has some benefits, there are places where it’s pointless and wearing a mask may also have its down-sides. When you possess an infinite supply, you can do other things than when you don’t.”
Belgium didn’t possess a strategic supply of masks ahead of the epidemic.
Prof Van Ranst: “They can wear masks in China. That’s where the stocks were. A large number are manufactured there. I’m convinced that in the event of another pandemic we will possess a strategic stock. This will ensure the situation will develop in a more comfortable way.”
Prof Erika Vlieghe, expert in infectious diseases adds: “Having to fill a hole when war is already underway places you in a very vulnerable position. This must never happen again”.