Spaniards are all wearing masks, so why is the country’s infection rate so high?
To all appearances, Spain is a model country: based on the estimates of companies like Apple and Google from our smartphone use, we have respected the lockdown in an exceptionally disciplined manner. Masks, now obligatory, are used; it is extremely rare to see someone without one in public. Our health system is among the best in the world and offers universal coverage. We may have some coordination problems between the regional and central governments about the number of affected people, but even taking that into account, it’s puzzling as to why we have one of the highest infection and death rates in the world.
No fewer than 661 people have died so far in Spain (population 44 million) from COVID-19 for every million inhabitants, only behind Peru (955) and Belgium (858). Several areas of the country are among the most active foci in the world. Let’s be clear: countries like the United States, India or Brazil have much higher numbers, but they also have much larger populations. In terms of management, Spain’s figures do not reflect the highly developed country it undoubtedly is.
The problem, I am afraid, is one of education. Spaniards, like their latino counterparts, are highly social. Meetings with friends and family, or visits to crowded public places are part of daily life, and only stopped during lockdown, and the numbers rapidly improved. And while the media played up stories of people breaking the rules, in general, they were widely respected.
So what went wrong? With the idea of reviving the economy, we returned to a certain normality. Summer arrived, vacations, leisure, family… and most people continued to obey the mask rule. Or at least, it seemed that way. On closer examination, many people wear it around their neck, or with their nose out, or are constantly removing it to eat or drink, smoke, or to make themselves better understood. And as soon as anybody sits down at the table in a bar or restaurant, a terrace or enter somebody’s home, off comes the mask.
The situation reflects a serious misunderstanding about pandemic control and prevention measures. Viruses don’t know whether you’re wearing a mask or not, they just come out of our respiratory systems as tiny droplets of aerosol that stay in the air, especially indoors, for a long time, and are sometimes picked up through your mouth or nose by other people. Those people who take off their masks or leave their noses out “because they’re suffocating,” “because it’s hot,” or “because it bothers them” need to understand that there can be no half-measures: our respiratory system is highly vulnerable, as are our eyes, but the transmission of a respiratory virus happens mostly through the respiratory mucous membranes, not so much through the eye’s mucous membrane or from surfaces.
If you get COVID-19, you have a very high chance of doing so through your mouth or nose. Wearing a properly fitted mask will prevent this. This means wearing one all the time when you’re with people not from your household, especially in closed or poorly ventilated spaces. Because no matter how much those people may be your oldest friends or family, you don’t know who they’ve been in contact with, or how seriously they take wearing a mask. In short, you cannot answer for them, only for yourself.
In Spain, it looks like we’re all wearing our masks, but in reality, we’re all cheats. We wear them in the open air, where it is difficult to spread the virus. We then take them off when we go into a bar, when we sit at a terrace, and of course, in nightclubs and at home or the office. I have yet to see anyone who, on a visit to a friend’s house, welcomes them with a mask on, and much less leave it on during the visit. Which is why gatherings with family and friends have become, along with nightlife, the great transmitters of the pandemic, and have brought us to where we now are.
It’s not the mask: the mask works perfectly, regardless of what the conspiracy theorists say, the science has shown that masks are enormously effective in reducing the transmission of the virus… but to do so, they must be used well, and above all, in all situations where such transmission can occur.
I’m no mask lover: after several hours of teaching, I feel like I’ve been breathing myself for hours, swallowing my own CO2, I feel much more tired, and I can’t wait to get that thing off my face. In addition, it makes it difficult to understand others, who in turn can’t always understand me. I hate wearing a mask BUT I don’t take it off or leave my nose out to breathe better, because if I do so in a closed classroom, I’m breathing the same air as several dozen other people whose habits I can’t account for. I leave the classroom exhausted, fed up and irritable. But I don’t take my mask off, and I’m constantly checking to make sure it’s in place.
I’m at risk, because I have a heart condition. My father, my mother and my sister, who live in northern Spain, have tested positive: I am very worried as I see more and more friends and acquaintances who are also infected, some asymptomatic, others not. I could still catch the virus, but if I do, it won’t be for not having worn a mask.
So let’s stop playing at being epidemiologists or biologists when we’re not. Let’s not discuss the scientific evidence as if we knew what we were talking about, because we don’t. THIS IS A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH. As things stand, wearing a properly fitted mask is the best way to prevent infection.
Spain’s high infection rates are because we only wear masks in public, and take them off at the first opportunity, which paradoxically, are in closed and unventilated spaces where the virus spreads more easily. We need more awareness, more insistence on what is really important, which is not about being fined, but about catching a deadly virus. We wear masks because we’ve been told to, not because we understand why and have internalized that understanding.
That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in.
(En español, aquí)