With government easing the lockdown order imposed on Lagos, Ogun and Abuja Nigerians were expected to now wear facemasks when they are out in public to prevent the community spread of the dreaded Covid-19 disease.
As things stand, face masks have become a key item of everyday dressing. With the surgical masks hard to get and the N95 version beyond the reach of most, Nigerians have had to go for cheaper and practical alternatives, either buying ready-made masks on the streets or asking their neighbourhood tailors to make a few for their use, made out of Ankara cloth and other easily adaptable fabrics.
And so in only a week of the face mask rule in effect, a million and one shades of the item have flooded the cities. But with that precautionary measure has come several misconceptions and mistakes. Users often wear the masks wrongly, or have no idea how to properly preserve them for re-use.
Perhaps the most alarming ignorance of all is people wearing the masks day in and day out, when they should discard them daily (in case of the disposable types). There are also countless instances of individuals lowering the masks under their chins when outdoors when actually they should have them on.
Then there are those who try out the masks at retailers before they eventually make a choice, not to mention drivers who wear their mask while driving alone and with the air-conditioner on.
And there was the news that circulated on social media earlier this week about a cab driver who had a bunch of masks in his vehicle, giving passengers to use and taking it back to give to other passengers.
“That’s a calamity, a jeopardy waiting to happen,” says Dr Oluwatoyin Adeyemi of the Association of Public Health Professionals in Lagos. “Facemasks should not be re-used in that manner. In fact, that is disastrous. Facemasks belong to an individual. It should not be shared. And immediately after using the mask every day, you need to wash it, dry it and iron it to prepare it for the next day. Even your cloth mask, you are not to re-use it without washing.”
Dr Adeyemi is worried about asymptomatic carriers of the virus, who mill about with the public without covering their faces. They are the ones who go about infecting people, she adds, because they have no signs and no symptoms.
“If every person puts on a facemask, whether they have Covid-19 or not, the chances of releasing these viral particles into the air or onto surfaces is reduce; but if we have just 50% or 60% of the population wearing facemasks, that strategy has been defeated.
“And remember: it is not only wearing the facemasks that prevent the spread. Physical distancing is also important. If you put on a facemask and someone near you is not and is infected, they can still infect you.”
Dr Adeyemi also warns that everyone should not ignore all the safety and preventive measures put in place already by government and healthcare professionals.
“We all have to wear our facemasks now, but mind you: facemasks are not replacing hand hygiene and other measures. There are also prescribed ways to use these masks. For example, you don’t put facemasks under your chin and keep touching the outer surface because you can infect yourself by so doing.
“And by the time you are removing your mask at the end of the day, you need to wash your hands; this is because, the viral particles may have landed on the outer surface and in the course of removing it, you may be infecting yourself.”
It’s been proven that the Coronavirus can stay active on any surface for 24 hours.
So how are you sure that the facemasks you have bought is thick enough to keep the virus away from your nostrils?
Bola Fashina, PRO of the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON), offers useful rule of thumb to follow.
“First, no droplets should be able to pass through it. And the simple way to test it is to put it on, light a candle and blow through it, he says. “If you are unable to put out the candle light, that means you are well protected. If you blow it out, it means that just as air came through the mask, then droplets can enter from the outside.”
Facemasks, he adds, should be comfortable enough for you to breathe properly in tem. In essence, they should not be too tightly fitted to your face.
“Thirdly, you are not supposed to wear the masks all through the day, or while in your car. You are supposed to wear it when you are in a crowd, to protect yourself. As much as possible, if you are not, give yourself an opportunity to breathe in fresh air. If you are in an office and there is nobody there with you, there is no need to wear a mask. But if a visitors or colleague comes in and you are discussing, it’s okay to wear your mask.”
Fashina says that wearing a mask does not stop you from maintaining social or physical distancing. Also, wearing a mask does not stop you from washing your hands regularly, when you touch surfaces – or even when you remove your mask.
“You are not supposed to remove the masks from your face, but from the ear side,” he says. And contrary to what we have come to call them, Fashina says the right name for the masks are barrier masks.
“You must not use a material that bleaches when getting a mask. Be sure that when you wash it, the ink doesn’t run. It can infect your skin, which can also be dangerous.
“When you sneeze, do so into your barrier mask. You are not only protecting yourself but also anyone close to you.”
He says Nigerian must take personal responsibility for their safety. “The government and health institutions have given us enough advice to help us through these. We need to ensure that we are safe and trying to protect others.”