Health and Healthcare Systems

Coronavirus: here’s what you need to know about face masks

Security personnel wearing face masks following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak stand guard outside the Great Hall of the People before the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing, China May 21, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins - RC2USG9B4EIZ

Masks are becoming a common site all across the world. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Douglas Broom
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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COVID-19

  • Due to COVID-19, face masks are in high demand across the globe.
  • Over 50 countries have made mask-wearing in public mandatory.
  • China still makes most masks, but new makers are entering the market.

The humble face mask has become sought after across the globe.

Supplies of masks have run low as coronavirus has spread, and fashion houses and carmakers are among the companies that have started making them to protect health workers and others as restrictions begin to ease in many places.

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Many governments are making the wearing of masks a precondition for lifting lockdowns, allowing people to return to shops, offices and factories. And with any potential vaccine many months away, billions more masks are going to be needed.

As a result, prices are soaring. Basic surgical masks that until last year cost a few cents are now retailing at as much as $1.25 each in some places and prices of respirator-grade N95 masks, which stop at least 95% of particles, have been reported as high as $25.

As coronavirus continues to claim lives across the globe, here’s what you need to know about face masks.

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This is how prevalent mask wearing is around the world. Image: Statista

What does the World Health Organization say about masks?

The World Health Organization says if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with COVID-19. The WHO also advises people to wear one if they are coughing and sneezing, and says they are only effective if combined with frequent handwashing.

Official advice varies from country to country. The UK government, for example, advises wearing a face covering in enclosed spaces where social distancing isn’t possible, like on public transport.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), similarly, recommends wearing masks in places where social distancing is not possible, such as shops, to slow the spread of the virus. Like the UK, it advocates simple cloth face coverings and says surgical masks should be reserved for health workers.

Where are masks compulsory?

More than 50 countries are reported to have made it compulsory to wear a face mask in public places, including Venezuela and Vietnam, which were among the first to act. The Czech Republic was the first European nation to mandate masks, on 18 March.

Some airlines, including American, Lufthansa, and United, have announced that face masks will be compulsory in terminals as well on flights. Eurostar, which operates train services between England and France, also requires passengers to wear masks.

Many countries impose fines for failing wear masks and some are distributing them free. In France, failure to wear a mask on public transport can incur a fine of up to $145.

Where are the world's masks being made?

Last year, China made just over half of the world’s masks. This year, the share is expected to climb to 85%. The global market for disposable masks was worth $75 billion in the first quarter of this year and is expected to grow at a rate of over 50% for the next seven years.

Since the pandemic started, many companies have started producing masks, including carmaker BMW, which has said it will produce millions of masks to protect its staff and other people against the virus.

Around the world, entrepreneurs have started making masks, but not all are of sufficient quality to meet international standards. The United States, the Netherlands, Spain and Turkey have all rejected imported batches on quality grounds.

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How many masks are needed? And how many are being produced?

The WHO estimates 89 million medical masks are needed globally every month while the coronavirus pandemic lasts, together with 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles and face visors.

At the start of the outbreak, US officials estimated that the country needed 300 million face masks to cope with COVID-19 in 2020. Since then, US manufacturer 3M, which made 550 million masks in 2019, has said it will produce 2 billion this year at plants around the world.

In February, China’s daily production of all types of masks soared from around 10 million to 115 million by the end of that month, and production has expanded 12-fold since the pandemic started.

Supplies of masks have been disrupted by countries banning exports or requisitioning supplies within their borders and shortages of specialist fabrics used to make the more advanced types of respirator masks.

What types of face masks are being used?

Manufacturers across the world are producing three types of mask – surgical masks, respirators and cloth face coverings.

Surgical masks are designed to protect patients from infection during surgery, for example if a doctor coughs in an operating theatre. Respirators, on the other hand, filter air passing in and out of the mask.

Cloth face coverings, including home-made masks, are recommended by the CDC as they help stop the wearer from spreading infection. But COVID-19 is spread by micro-droplets emitted when breathing which can enter the body through the eyes and mouth.

To combat micro-droplets, health workers wear visors for eye protection. The WHO says the best way to avoid infection is to wash hands frequently and avoid touching your face. A mask may help you stop spreading the virus but hygiene is the key to avoiding getting it, it says.

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