Not as it seems
Masks have been a topic of much contention across the world during these pandemic times. In certain countries, they have become an easy way to identify your political leanings. Still, the politicisation of masks is not relevant to current discourse.
When the pandemic had just started picking up pace, the WHO and the national health agencies across the world were not clear on whether the widespread use of masks is beneficial or not. Indeed, there was a time not too long ago when many health agencies were advising against the civilian use of masks in order to not strain the supplies of the same for emergency workers. At the same time, many of the same agencies were advising some kind of facial covering to provide protection against droplets that are exhaled. Slowly, as mask production picked up, the messaging changed. The use of masks became a required etiquette and many national health agencies issued guidelines for public use of masks and face coverings. There has even been a surge of designer masks which make the essential accessory a bit more pleasing to the eyes. But even then, the WHO remained ambiguous in their stance towards mask usage. This was the case, at least until recently. Now, new evidence being brought before WHO has forced the body to acknowledge the possibility that the novel Coronavirus has some form of mechanism for airborne and aerosol transmission. The WHO has stated that this discovery may have even more serious ramifications for enclosed public spaces that do not necessarily ventilate as well as they should. This would also affect WHO guidelines on social distancing. The present guidelines advocate a distance of one metre or a little over three feet. Individual nations have their own guidelines which vary but are generally around six feet. If the WHO updates its guidelines, it must acknowledge that the current social distancing norms may not be enough to keep the virus at bay.
Invariably, this development means that masks now hold an even more valuable role in keeping us safe on a day to day basis as a first and most often, last line of defence against the contagion. Even in the early days of the pandemic, N-95 masks were a coveted commodity. It was what the professionals used and it looked safe, much more than a simple piece of cloth. It provided a mental safety blanket of sorts. Therefore, it was no surprise that not only were N-95 fakes mass-produced, even fancier versions with valves on the front and sides became more popular. They appeared to be an even safer, more high tech option for the pandemic days. Many who wore them stated that such masks are easier to breathe through and that they keep the face cool. Of course, all was not as it seems. In recent months, many health bodies have spoken out against these valved masks. The Director-General of Health Services in India was latest in line to warn against the use of such masks. In a letter to the Ministry of Health, the DGHS observed that valved N95 masks are detrimental to the efforts to contain the spread of the Coronavirus. The problem with valved respirators is not the concept itself but rather the type of valved respirators available to the public.
One-way valve respirators are normally used in construction sites where they keep workers safe from dust, etc. They do not filter the air being exhaled by the person as it is being released by the valves on the front or sides. As such, while these masks may keep the person wearing them safe, they do so at the cost of endangering everyone around. Two-way valve respirators are not commonly found for public use and are instead used almost exclusively by medical workers where they are most required. This goes against the spirit of wearing masks to not only protect yourself but others around you as well. A simpler, more reliable design, while less impressive to look at and even less comfortable, will nevertheless suffice. If the problem of one-way valve masks does not subside, India may have to follow in the footsteps of several US states in penalising the use of such masks.