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Voices ᐋ ᐄᔮᔨᐧᒫᓂᐧᐃᒡ

Time to wear a mask

BY Xavier Kataquapit Apr 10, 2020

Asking people to wear a mask in public during a pandemic of a deadly respiratory disease would seem logical. Unfortunately, information and recommendations on the subject are contradictory. Now, however, medical experts are now starting to support the idea. 

Given the shortage of medical-grade surgical masks, they should be reserved only for health professionals. One way of securing this supply is to educate the community on how to make and use a homemade mask while stressing that they are not a replacement for safe practices recommended by healthcare professionals. We still need to practice proper hand washing, physical distancing and staying at home. Wearing a mask should be for those of us who must go out in public. 

Some experts advise against wearing a mask unless you are sick, in a hospital, caring for the sick or have tested positive. Unfortunately, no one knows if they are positive unless they are tested, while those who are healthy are not tested unless they have been known to be exposed to the virus. This means that there are many individuals in the public who are asymptomatic or show no signs of sickness and may be unknowingly spreading the virus. 

In fact, no one knows who carries the virus unless we find a way to test every single person. Despite this, we have not been conducting sufficient tests in this country. One possible way to protect against asymptomatic individuals is to have everyone wear masks as we don’t know who is infected and who is not. 

One argument against wearing masks is that it would “provide a false sense of security.” The same was said about frequent hand washing but an education campaign was launched to insist on the practice as a primary prevention measure. In the same way, if our medical experts could guide us on the best practices of using a homemade mask, then wearing one could be a safer alternative to being completely exposed to an infectious virus in public spaces. 

Discouraging the public from wearing any kind of mask runs counter to the scientific research. A recent opinion column by Jeremy Howard in the Washington Post noted that 34 scientific papers have indicated that basic masks can be effective in reducing virus transmission. Yet his research team could not find any paper that showed evidence that the public use of masks did not work. 

If more people wore masks, it would protect the most vulnerable – people who work at grocery stores, pharmacies, food services, post offices and in other public spaces. These essential workers need to be protected because we need them to keep working, yet they are exposed daily to the possibility of infection. Wearing masks could help stem the tide of infection and help medical workers by easing the number of patients heading into our overcrowded hospitals. 

Countries like South Korea and Taiwan demonstrated that encouraging the public to wear masks has helped slow the pace of infection. European nations like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria are now making it mandatory to wear masks in public and there are signs that the rates of infection are slowing there. Meanwhile, in the United States, where infection rates are soaring, the wearing of masks is not promoted. 

I see the use of masks as an easy added level of protection for our First Nations. Although the federal government has announced funding for First Nations it does not seem to be sufficient to protect communities. Chronic underfunding has resulted in crowded housing, a lack of clean water and inadequate health services. All that makes us vulnerable.

Manufacturing and distributing homemade masks could be a simple solution that uses available resources, can be done immediately and maintained indefinitely. If adopted, this requires no extra government funding and involves the efforts of local people. Combined with the guidance and education of medical experts on their use, care and maintenance, it would help slow the rate of infections and buy these communities critical time. Anyone can make their own mask by simply googling the information and following instructions in the many videos suggested. 

Our First Nations will need every level of protection they can get. Wearing a mask is a simple solution that has been proven to work. 

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Xavier Kataquapit is Cree from Attawapiskat First Nation on the James Bay coast. He is a writer and columnist who has written about his life and Indigenous issues since 1998.