In the last few months, many communications were brought to the public that face masks are ineffective during a pandemic crisis. Since April 27, 2020 Germany has made face masks mandatory for shopping and in public transportation. In the Netherlands, it became mandatory only for public transportation, from June 1, 2020 onwards. However, in Asian countries people have been wearing masks in public for ages. Although New York and Hong Kong are both metropolitan areas, the coronavirus pandemic was devastating in the US and not in Hongkong. This fact alone implies a necessary, and a more distinguished view of the normative application of facemasks. In the passage that follows we will dive into the use of masks during this viral pandemic beginning with the brief history of facemasks then continuing with the benefits and risks by wearing facemasks in modern times.
The introduction of mouth and nose coverage (mouth protection, face veils, face masks, mouth bandages) can be traced back to the turn-of-the-20th-century.In 1897, the hygienist Carl Friedrich Flugge (1847–1923) working in Breslau at this time published his works on the development of droplet infections as part of his research on the genesis of tuberculosis. At that time, the respiratory system as a transmitter of germs came into focus of research and already mandated instructions to keep distance. In the same year, 1897, a cooperative work between Flugge and Theodor Billroth’s (1829–1894) disciple Johannes von Mikulicz (1850–1905), who also worked in Breslau since 1890, was published. Their publication dealt with performing operations wearing a ‘mouth bandage’. In here, Mikulicz described a one-layered mask made of gauze. Mikulicz, who had already been responsible for the introduction of sterile gloves made from cloth, noted concerning the applicability of surgical masks: ‘…we breathed through it as easily as a lady wearing a veil in the streets…’Mikulicz’ assistant Hübner resumed the topic and described a two-layered mouth protection made of gauze that should prevent driblet spread. More studies regarding the germ content in the operating room air followed.
In the middle of the 1930s, the research on the role of facemasks was continued in Germany and the USA. Only in the 1940s, washable and sterilizable masks gained acceptance in German and international surgery with only the number of gauze layers varying (2–3, 3–4).Beginning in the mid-1960s, the use of disposable items made of paper and fleece was introduced all over the world after this was started in the USA.Still in the 1990s, there were only uncertain data available. Therefore, an unresolved discussion was present between surgery and hospital hygiene, if wound infections could be reduced by the use of surgical mouth and nose protection. Today, following the recommendations of the RKI (German Robert Koch-Institute for hygiene), the available data indicate that surgical facemasks lower the contamination of indoor air.
“…Due to our experience of many years we consider their (mouth masks) – by the way quite irritating – use altogether unnecessary. Only those afflicted with a catarrh or angina should wear a mouth bandage when operating that is to be sterilised in steam. Speaking should be limited and the direction of the operative field avoided…”Fritz Konig 1914
That being said, if scientists and doctors from way back are showing their disdain for cloth coverings how do people of the now, who share no relation to the medical field, feel about being clad in face garments that hinder one’s breathing? And if the divide has stood through the test of time does that then mean that masks will too? I asked a few people what their answers were. First is Jami Fredrick, manager at a local grocery store, upon being asked, ‘Do you think masks are forever?’ and ‘Would you continue wearing them if the government said you didn’t have to?’ She answered, “I hope not; for a little while, but not forever.” Another person I interviewed with the same questions, Jaime Johnson, recent highschool graduate from Paulding county, Georgia says, “Uh, I hope not, but I can see it being a thing; It just depends if they found a way to secure covid, like if they had a reliable vaccine.” I further inquired to both interviewees, “How do you feel about doctors telling people to wear TWO masks?’ Jami said, “I won’t do it. It’s already hard enough to breathe with one, I’m not gonna wear two.” Jaime shared a similar sentiment with, “I can barely breathe with one!
In conclusion, with the surgical face mask being the symbol of our times, during the COVID-19 pandemic the argument still remains to be seen of the efficiency and efficacy of wearing a mask which in turn will cause the longevity of masks to remain a mystery.