COVER YOUR NOSE, MOUTH

Trump, Tedros agree on one thing—and on that both are dead, dead wrong

Both ignore their own experts’ published advice.

In Summary
  • Does the BBC truly believe it can convince it is better to let people cough and sneeze on our bare and unprotected faces than on a face covering?
  • Allowing anyone to wander uncovered during this pandemic is making all our public spaces virus free-fire zones.
A reporter briefly removes his mask to ask a question as US President Donald Trump meets with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about the coronavirus response in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, April 28, 2020.
A reporter briefly removes his mask to ask a question as US President Donald Trump meets with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis about the coronavirus response in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, US, April 28, 2020.
Image: REUTERS

Unwillingness to quickly make public face covering compulsory to stem the spread of Covid-19 will one day be reckoned among history’s greatest public health blunders. We are losing many too many lives unnecessarily as we miss a clear chance now to “flatten the curve” and more quickly revive our economies.

Yet not covering faces is a matter on which US President Donald Trump and World Health Organization head Dr Tedros Adhanom seem glad to agree, as both ignore their own experts’ published advice. And in the UK, a strong supporting role is BBC boosterism of the British government’s official “no-mask” policy: Don’t wear masks, the BBC ardently advises, with the dumbfounding rationale that “they can be contaminated by other people’s coughs and sneezes”. Does the BBC truly believe it can convince it is better to let people cough and sneeze on our bare and unprotected faces than on a face covering?

Here the BBC says it takes its lead from WHO and official UK scientific advisors. A BBC video “explainer” uses BIG BLACK Xs [see BBC screen grab] to ensure we grasp that face covering is deemed utterly unwarranted by both WHO and UK government. And a call by London Mayor Sadiq Khan — leader of one of the world’s greatest cities — for Londoners to use face coverings was buried in the BBC website’s London regional section.

 

WHO’s current and CDC’s now lapsed advice rose from a scarcity of masks that should be saved for caregivers. This is eminently reasonable: Proper medical masks must be preserved to protect those brave people caring for Covid-19 patients. But CDC believed, and WHO apparently still does, that the public must not be trusted with the truth that covering faces with scarves, bandanas, home-made cotton masks, with almost anything at all, will help keep us from spreading Covid-19 to others.

Trump and Tedros reject own experts’ advice

This is despite WHO’s own October 2019 recommendation that during a “high” or “extraordinary” level pandemic the public should wear masks [see WHO screen grab], which was cited in a March 2020 piece on the “WHO’s confusing guidance on masks in the covid-19 pandemic” in the British Medical Journal.

Across the Atlantic, after months of rejecting public face covering, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed course. In early April, it warned bluntly that the “virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.” We are now cautioned that even simple conversation can spread Covid-19, including talk from people who feel utterly fine but are asymptomatic virus vectors.

Allowing anyone to wander uncovered during this pandemic is making all our public spaces virus free-fire zones. CDC now suggests everyone wear a face covering in public if they cannot maintain social distance.

On April 8, Trump belittled this CDC guidance: “I don’t know, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk — the great Resolute Desk,” he mused, “I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know. Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.”

Leadership matters. France’s President Macron, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy, and other world leaders are today seen wearing masks in public. By dismissing CDC’s advice, Trump gives America’s Covid-deniers — and even those who just find face covering uncomfortable or inconvenient — licence not to cover their faces.

 

Yet WHO seems unable to accept that it is wrong and update its confusing advice, as did CDC. And the UK government, despite appeals from many scientists, appears ready to defend its no-face covering policies to its citizens’ last breath. When pandemic comes, as I have written, truth and trust must not be the first casualty. The BBC, with its immense global reach, has a particular responsibility to not serve simply as a megaphone to promote misguided official advice.

The “precautionary principle” must now prevail

Ample contrary evidence laid out in peer-reviewed journals as well as mass media has convinced dozens of national and local governments to require face coverings in public; the latest is Nigeria’s mega-city of Lagos, which launched its #MaskUpLagos campaign on April 26.

The British Medical Journal article 'Face masks for the public during the Covid-19 crisis' argues that despite conflicting perspectives, the “precautionary principle” must now prevail; if face coverings might help, and have little potential harm, they should be used now. The WHO report cited above agrees.

Not all people can be fooled all the time, as the saying goes, and official disinformation discouraging face covering is already proving costly to public trust in official pronouncements. In France, an April 9 poll of 1,003 people found that 77 per cent feel the government lied about the public’s need for masks.

A poll of 2,005 UK residents published April 26 by the Observer apparently did not ask about face covering, but found trust in the UK government’s actions falling. The pollsters suggested that the “rally around the flag” effect that buoyed faith in official actions early in the pandemic crisis might be fading.

The poll also reports that nearly four times as many respondents felt the “UK government has handled things better” than the US government. Even in this macabre comparison, faint praise, indeed. But perhaps less damning enough to spin a BBC headline.