While the U.S. and other countries are debating the potential value of a universal face mask rule in combating the spread of coronavirus, here in the Czech Republic that debate was settled weeks ago: it absolutely works!
Last month, at the earliest appearance of Covid-19 cases in this central European country of 10 million, the Czech government was among the first on the continent to shut down all non-essential businesses, impose severe restrictions on public gatherings, and close its borders. This society quickly adopted the physical-distancing and hand-washing regimen that has now become standard all over the world. But what sets the Czech Republic apart from almost every other country in Europe was the decision two weeks ago to require everyone to wear a face mask covering the nose and mouth at all times outside the home.
As an American living in Prague, I was impressed by the reaction of Czechs and foreign residents alike to this draconian measure. People here clearly understood the importance of preserving the supply of professional medical/surgical masks for healthcare providers and first responders. So without complaint, the entire nation transformed itself almost overnight into a giant factory churning out homemade masks. Thousands of individuals and businesses immediately began sewing masks out of a variety of fabrics. Dozens of video tutorials for producing makeshift respiratory masks appeared on the Internet in Czech and English. Within three days, there were enough masks for every man, woman, and child in this country of 10 million.
Today, when I venture out to walk my dog, I rarely see anyone on the streets of Prague without a face mask. Despite the inconvenience and discomfort of having to breathe through a mask, it has become a badge of honor and a form of social bonding to have one’s nose and mouth covered. Wearing a mask is a signal of each person’s willingness to play his or her part in this epic battle against the pandemic. Those who defy the law by carelessly pulling down their masks to drink a coffee or smoke a cigarette are subject to a hefty fine and also run the risk of being confronted and ostracized by fellow citizens. The government has now banned cigarette smoking outside, for this reason. With few exceptions — there are fools everywhere — it appears that most people here have embraced the universal face mask rule with a philosophy of shared determination and collective responsibility for preventing the coronavirus from ravaging this country.
But is it working? We all know that the original guidance from the World Health Organization held that face masks should not be used to protect against the virus, but there is now strong evidence that this advice was based more on the urgent need to preserve the supply of medical masks for heathcare providers rather than on any consideration of whether masks of any sort might offer some added protection for ordinary citizens, in addition to physical-distancing and hand-washing. Numerous experts have written recently that even a simple homemade cotton mask covering the nose and mouth could help to block some of the microdroplets carrying coronavirus.
The Czech government has disseminated a persuasive video arguing that homemade masks go a long way towards preventing contagious people from coughing broadly into the air and infecting healthy ones — and that universal use of face coverings will dramatically reduce the infection rate. The Czech motto is “your mask protects me, my mask protects you”.
There are clear indications that the extreme measures being enforced here — particularly the universal face mask requirement — are keeping down the per capita numbers of those who have tested positive for coronavirus, compared to many neighboring countries such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and of course Spain and Italy. So far, the Czech Republic has had fewer than 50 deaths from Covid-19. But more importantly, the percentage of new cases each day among those tested appears to be dropping. In other words, the Czech across-the-board face mask rule is beginning to “flatten the curve”, as has happened in China, Taiwan, South Korea, and other places where masks are widely used.
Czech officials hope to persuade other countries to follow their lead on face masks. Last month, the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, sent out the following tweet addressed to President Trump: “Mr. President… try tackling virus the Czech way. Wearing a simple cloth mask, decreases the spread of the virus by 80%! Czech Republic has made it OBLIGATORY for its citizens to wear a mask in the public. Pls retweet. God bless America”
As an American who is witnessing the positive developments taking place in this small, tightly knit, socially disciplined country where everyone now wears a protective mask, I hope he listens.