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COVID-19: What’s behind Singapore’s U-turn on wearing masks?

coronavirus whats behind singapores u turn on wearing masks

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Singapore reversed its position on masks on Friday, saying it would no longer discourage residents from wearing them in public and would distribute reusable face masks from Sunday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
 made the statement alongside his announcement that schools and most workplaces would be closed from early next week, as part of increased measures to stem the coronavirus outbreak as infections surged in the past month to more than 1,100 as of Friday.

Lee acknowledged that health authorities had previously urged residents not to wear surgical masks unless they were unwell – with their exhortations appearing on the front pages of local newspapers – and attributed to the change to new research and the spike in cases.

“We now think that there are some cases out there in the community going undetected, though probably still not that many,” he said in a national address, his third since the Covid-19 outbreak.

“We also now have evidence that an infected person can show no symptoms and yet still pass on the virus to others … Therefore we will no longer discourage people from wearing masks.”

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An employee wearing a face mask waits for customers at a fruit stall in a Singapore food court.

While the World Health Organisation had previously said there was no need for people to wear masks, it has of late begun to reconsider its position, as has the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Some experts say the mask-wearing culture in places like Japan and Hong Kong has helped control the rate of infections there.

Research published by the Nature science journal on Friday, based on a study of more than 200 people, found surgical masks could “significantly reduce detection of coronavirus and influenza virus in exhaled breath and may help interrupt virus transmission”.

Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged during a Fox News interview on Friday that the United States would soon expand its recommendations and suggest Americans consider wearing face coverings in public.

“Because of some recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak, as opposed to coughing and sneezing, the better part of valour is that when you’re out, and you can’t maintain that [recommended] six-foot distance [between people], to wear some sort of facial covering,” he said.

From Sunday, the People’s Association – a statutory body that oversees neighbourhood grass roots committees in Singapore – will distribute reusable masks to residents.

In February, the government distributed 5.2 million surgical masks, with each of Singapore’s 1.37 million households given four masks.

Kenneth Mak, the director of medical services at the Ministry of Health, said recommendations on mask-wearing were “risk-based and evidence-informed, and it relates to our understanding of what the risk of community spread is and our understanding of what the mode of transmission is in Singapore”.

Even with Friday’s announcement, Lee said authorities still wanted to conserve surgical masks for people who really needed them, such as health care workers in clinics and hospitals tending to those infected by the virus.

Trade minister Chan Chun Sing said the country had been planning for this scenario for “some time”, which explained why there were masks in stock at shops and supermarkets across the island, while the government also had its own supply.

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A man wearing a face mask walks past a mural in Singapore’s Chinatown.

Meanwhile, gaming firm Razer has announced plans to produce up to 2 million masks in Singapore.

When asked if the authorities should have reconsidered their stance on mask-wearing earlier, national development minister Lawrence Wong said the government had been implementing social-distancing measures in considered steps, and citizens might feel “fatigued” if a swathe of measures came at once.

“When there is fatigue, people may not abide by the measures so well, and then [the measures] will not have their intended effect,” he said.

“Before we didn’t have community spread of the virus, now we’re seeing an increase in locally transmitted cases and we are also concerned about possibly undetected carriers within our community. And so, because of all of these reasons, we’ve decided the position on masks has to be updated.”

While some Singaporean online commenters said the mask announcement was “too slow”, others said it was better late than never, with most supporting the government’s decision to distribute reusable masks and hoping the authorities would enforce a stricter mask policy.

Photographer Joseph Nair, 33, said he understood why the policy had changed given the new findings that those without symptoms could be spreading the disease.

“I don’t find the change confusing. I need to protect others from me,” he said, adding that he only had pink masks at home after giving his father his N95 stash and he hoped the government would issue “manlier” colours.

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