Nepal launches mask up campaign, a day after coronavirus death toll crosses 10,000 markWith 3,000 new cases daily and the third wave looming, experts say the measure should’ve been enforced early on.
A day after the Covid-19 death toll crossed the 10,000 mark, the government on Saturday started a Nepal Mask Campaign with the slogan, “I will wear a mask and encourage others to wear one too.”
“We would like to request all people throughout the country to own the programme and wear masks compulsorily and properly as this is the only way to lessen the risk of infection and avoid passing the virus to others,” said Dr Radhika Thapaliya, director at the National Health Education Information and Communication Centre.
“Every citizen has some responsibility towards the country and during the pandemic by wearing the face mask properly, we can fulfill the responsibility.”
Although it is a scientifically established fact that wearing face masks, either surgical or those made of cloth, reduces transmissions of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, authorities seem to have just realised the need to launch a campaign.
“This kind of campaign could have been launched from day one and it would be less costly,” Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, chief of Clinical Research Unit at the Sukraraj Tropical and Infectious Disease Hospital, told the Post.
Studies suggest that some countries where the use of face masks by the general public is high have experienced significantly lower rates of Covid-19 spread and associated deaths.
The World Health Organisation has said that although the use of masks alone is not sufficient to provide adequate level of protection against Covid-19, masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives.
With authorities lifting most of the restrictions enforced to control the second wave of the pandemic, everyday life has become almost normal. Public transportation services have resumed, markets and offices have opened and crowds have increased with people behaving as if there was no pandemic and the risk of the infection is over.
The more transmissible Delta and Delta Plus variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been responsible for the ongoing surge in new cases.
More than 3,000 cases have been reported every day for the past week or so.
On Saturday, 2,231 people tested positive in 8,866 polymerase chain reaction tests and 987 in 4,707 antigen tests. Positivity rate is over 25 percent. Since the pandemic began last year, 712,740 infections have been reported. Of these 35,432 cases are still active.
Hospitalisations have gone up. Health facilities providing care to the patients infected with Covid-19 in cities like Kathmandu have been running in full capacity.
The death toll from Covid-19 has reached 10,038 with 19 more deaths reported on Saturday by the Ministry of Health and Population.
In view of the risks, the National Examination Board on Saturday postponed indefinitely the nationwide grade 12 examinations that were due to begin on August 15 and 374,000 students were taking.
“The fact is neither the risk of infection has lessened nor has the coronavirus infection gone anywhere,” said Thapaliya, who is also an expert on risk communication.
“Rather, the risk has increased as new variants named Delta and Delta Plus—highly contagious compared to the virus first seen in Wuhan of China—have been circulating in the communities.”
As part of the campaign, mass media will be used to create awareness and health workers, civil society members and teachers, among others, will be asked to promote the importance of wearing masks, according to Thapaliya.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba also chipped in in the effort.
In a video message entitled ‘Let’s wear masks, follow health protocols’ with the hashtag #MaskUpNepal, a masked up Deuba said, “It seems that we are on the verge of being hit by the third wave of the pandemic. The efforts by the government alone would not be adequate to control the pandemic. It would require combined effort by the government and the people. So I have a request: please do not go out unnecessarily. If you must go out, wear a mask properly, covering your nose and mouth. Maintain physical distance. Frequently wash your hands with soap and water. Let’s strictly adhere to all health safety measures.”
Asked why the authorities took so long to start the campaign to urge the people to wear masks, Thapaliya said that officials heading the communication department earlier might not have known the importance of communication or did not have ideas about how to communicate with people and change their behaviour.
Although Thapaliya is the only risk communication expert in the Health Ministry, she was earlier not given the responsibility of communicating about the risk of the coronavirus.
“Now, we have launched the campaign and expect cooperation from all people throughout the country, as we have seen and experienced the nightmare of the infection,” she told the Post.
But other officials at the Ministry of Health and Population said that the government had been urging the people to follow safety protocols.
“Even though the Health Ministry had not launched a campaign specifically on wearing masks, we have been urging the public to follow the safety measures,” said Dr Samir Kumar Adhikari, joint spokesperson for the Health Ministry. “The new campaign was needed as people have been fatigued by the prolonged restrictions and the risk of the infections spreading has increased.”
As the vaccination drive picks up, people in general have started becoming complacent. The use of face masks has lessened of late and even when people wear face masks, they are not wearing it properly.
“Some people wear face masks on the chin, some put it in their pocket and wear it only when they see police and a lot of people remove the face mask to talk when they meet with acquaintances,” said Adhikari. “Such behaviour does not protect them from transmission but jeopardises lives.”
The ministry said that even if the campaign was launched to encourage the people for a behavioural change, local administration and local federal units could enforce some kind of restrictions or take decisions to make masks mandatory.
According to the Covid-19 Crisis Management Ordinance-2021, security agencies can fine anyone not wearing a mask at public places Rs100.
“But more than the fine, the public itself should see the gravity of risks,” Adhikari said.
Public health experts say that even if the third wave of infections is inevitable, the second wave is not yet over. The current spike in new cases is a surge of the second wave of infections and how long the second wave will last depends on public behaviour and the measures taken by the authorities concerned.
“The third wave might be inevitable but at present, the second wave is not over yet,” Dr Sarad Onta, a public health expert, told the Post. “It depends on the measures we take, including the safety measures aimed at controlling the infections.”
The second wave began in April and a high of 9,317 cases were reported on May 11. In mid-June, local administrations in the hardest hit areas like Kathmandu Valley started lifting the restrictions placed since April. The number of daily cases went down to 1,042 on July 4 but it has been increasing gradually since then.
With authorities reluctant to impose another lockdown, they are urging the people to adopt safety measures and wear face masks.
“Something is better than nothing, and wearing the face mask is the only way to lessen the risk of infections and passing the virus to others,” said Pun, the virologist of the government-run Sukraraj Hospital.