I’m a sewist with a big stash of fabric, which I’m using to make masks that are going to family, friends, strangers, and for donation to local facilities asking for them. I’m not alone, many people are doing this, too. On social media, there has been some backlash against this practice. Here’s why I’m continuing to sew.
If you sample the articles on masks — read like fifteen in a row, as I’ve been doing every night the last few days — the same two points are repeated over and over.
First, that masks are useless. People making this point are nearly always working from the position — which I 100% agree with — that medical staff need them. Which they do, so stop buying them. Their anger is at the public denying medical staff the equipment they need to do their jobs. They are right. Same with the people saying that N95’s are notoriously hard to fit, so don’t buy them all up and think you’re safe. They’re right. No one should be buying N95’s unless your doctor says you have a medical reason for them (I know folks with immune system dysfunctions who have been asked to buy and wear these).
Second, that point that “you can still catch the virus even wearing a mask, homemade or not”, which is true, you can. That’s why you should never let a mask embolden you to leave your house when you don’t need to. Wearing virtually any mask still leaves you wide open to germs. Masks only cover a small part of the body, they aren’t bulletproof against anything.
So why wear one? Why are me (and thousands of other people) making them?
Not because they will necessarily keep a person from catching Covid-19 but because they can provide a barrier that can decrease the chance a person who might be unknowingly infected, spreads it to anyone else.
We should be normalizing the use of masks (homemade for now for everyone not a healthcare worker, until we get our shortage under control!) as a way to increase social acceptance and awareness that masks are useful for this purpose.
It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus. CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.
The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.
If masks are useless, then it’s entirely natural to wonder why anyone needs them. This has been the basis of a lot of frustration and fear in the US. Everyone was told “you don’t need these, stop buying them,” but then simultaneously being told, “you’re keeping these vitally important things away from medical personnel”. Okay but wait…if they’re vitally important, don’t we need them too? Cue the mass paranoia driving everyone into stores for masks of every kind, which contributed to a dangerous crisis in the supply of masks for our healthcare system.
The biggest reason for mask wearing isn’t that it will keep you from catching something, but that it reduces the risk that the mask-wearer will spread any respiratory illness they might have. Normalizing the practice of protecting others through the public habit of wearing masks during periods of high infection (or even when you just don’t feel well) could help flatten the curves of many illnesses, not just this one.
Normalizing mask usage — and here again I will state that I’m referring to homemade facial coverings as long as we are dealing with a shortage of industrially-made masks for healthcare workers — is culturally useful. In countries where masks are routinely worn whenever anyone feels anything less than 100% healthy, the social act of wearing the mask is understood: your mask protects me, and my mask protects you.
Even folks angry at mask usage will admit that they prevent the spread, no one denies this. It’s an important function of a mask. We absolutely have to protect front line workers first, so they should be getting ALL the industrially-made masks, no question. But homemade masks are also able to reduce the risk of spreading an illness. Covering the excretions from your mouth and nose from going into the surrounding air, as much as you can, helps, even if you’re using a homemade mask. Every day we seem to get more data on how easy it is to spread Covid-19. It can be entirely asymptomatic in some people, and many people can go days unknowingly spreading the virus before symptoms appear. A person wearing a mask is saying, “Since I can’t know my Covid-19 status with certainty, I’m choosing to protect everyone around me”.
Normalizing face coverings has a far-reaching benefit. Homemade masks are useful for this because they accomplish prevention and normalization without taking masks from the front line workers. For example, if during flu season, it was just normal for folks to wear masks whenever they felt the slightest twinge of a symptom, then a lot fewer of us would get sick every season. If people were able to wear masks in this way and know that everyone around them would be doing the same thing, then masks would signal a sentiment of “thanks for keeping us all safe”, the way it does in other countries. This could have real benefits for everyone, including much better protection for those with chronic illnesses and limited immune systems.
Just as we advocate for vaccination because we understand the benefit of herd immunity, wearing masks can work on a similar level. Not by conferring immunity (masks can’t do that, as we know), but by making it socially encouraged to reduce our own risk of spreading any illness we might have to others. One person wearing a mask makes everyone around them safer. It isn’t perfect, nothing is (not even vaccination). But it could do a lot of good toward preventing new cases. Isn’t that a worthwhile goal?