Mar 19, 2020 09:04 PM

Hu Shuli: Want to Stop the Outbreak? Wear a Mask

People dine at a restaurant in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, on March 17. Photo: IC Photo
People dine at a restaurant in Nanchang, Jiangxi province, on March 17. Photo: IC Photo

As of Thursday, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 203,000 people and killed 8,241 globally, according to data from John Hopkins University in the U.S. At this stage, what should the public do to prevent the relentless spread of Covid-19?

The simplest thing, I think, is for everybody to wear masks and wash their hands frequently. This is what we learned fighting the SARS epidemic 17 years ago — it is totally irresponsible to claim that wearing masks is useless in preventing respiratory infections.

In the 1970s, I was a medical worker for patients of infectious diseases. I tended more than 100 acute hepatitis and tuberculosis patients. In this environment, how did I protect myself? I wore a mask at all times to prevent airborne infection, and I frequently washed my hands to avoid contact transmission. These two methods will generally keep you safe.

Now, for Covid-19, governments should tell people to wear masks in public, particularly in crowded urban areas. Officials at all levels should set a good example by wearing masks, and must not inspect the frontlines of the virus fight without doing so. Right before the lockdown of Wuhan on Jan. 23, I saw from photos taken at the city’s railway station and airport that few people were wearing masks, which left me very concerned about the situation at the time.

Why are infectious diseases so much scarier in China? One of the reasons is that in the densely populated country, people have not established good hygiene habits. Thus, whenever there is an infectious disease outbreak, it should be seen as an opportunity for our citizens to learn good hygiene habits. Maybe there are some who simply don’t like wearing masks and washing their hands, but actually, it is because of poor hygiene habits. This must change. In Japan, you don’t see such panic in the face of an infectious disease outbreak, because everyone already has these habits.

I must say we had our lessons during the SARS epidemic in terms of hygiene. In April 2003, when the State Council, China’s cabinet, admitted that the country was facing a serious situation in combating the SARS outbreak, there were still media reports describing some local economies as doing well, without anyone “on the road wearing masks.” Even some materials that local governments produced to advise residents on how to deal with SARS claimed that wearing masks was “useless.”

It’s totally irresponsible to make that claim. One should admit that wearing masks will be very helpful for preventing the aerial transmission of the virus as long as the quality of the mask isn’t compromised. Also, anyone with a suspected case of the virus who has symptoms of a respiratory illness should also wear a mask. And everyone’s right to wear a mask should be protected.

Some opponents would say: Yes, masks protect your mouth, but what about your eyes? Some also argue that it doesn’t look good to wear face masks in public areas. Obviously, those arguments don’t make any sense.

Although there’s no 100% guarantee that wearing a will protect you completely from infection, it will definitely reduce the possibility of healthy people getting infected by people who don’t yet know they have the disease. Of course, if only infected people were required to wear masks, it would certainly draw criticism as it would be considered a form of discrimination. Thus, the best way is for all of us to wear masks, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated areas.

Wearing a mask might seem like a trivial thing, but it reflects whether governments care about their people. In the early stage of the SARS outbreak in Hong Kong, the government of the special administrative region quickly took action to introduce and encourage residents to wear masks, including posting educational materials on its official website. And it was mandatory for all taxi drivers in the city to wear masks. Furthermore, the Hong Kong government, local press and medical specialists have never said that wearing masks is useless.

Let’s start by doing the small things that we can do. One of those is to end the resistance to wearing masks. If we can do this, it will be a step in the right direction.

Hu Shuli is the founder and publisher of Caixin Media.

Contact translator Lu Zhenhua (

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