Published: 02:00, February 7, 2020 | Updated: 08:13, June 6, 2023
PDF View
Hysteria over shortage of face masks in city is unbecoming
By Paul Stapleton

M y sister-in-law called me late a few nights ago to ask whether I was successful in buying any face masks. As she expected, I replied that I hadn’t been, though I didn’t bother to explain how illogical it was to queue up for an item that triggers such unwarranted hysteria. She then seemed to go into panic mode about being unable to find masks anywhere. Naturally, given the local concerns over the coronavirus, her desire for the masks had nothing to do with the “other” reason for putting on a face mask these days. This recent frenzy around acquiring face masks raises some interesting questions, not only about their general need and usefulness but also about human nature in general. A look at a few numbers can help put the excitement into perspective.

To date, over 20,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, the vast majority of them on the mainland. Presently, just  2.1 percent of these cases — so far all in China except one in the Philippines — have been fatal. By comparison, the death rate among those who were infected by SARS was about 10 percent. Although detailed information has been sketchy, among those who have died, most are said to have been elderly; one early report put the median age at 75 years old. And many of those had pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and hypertension. Only one fatality has been reported so far in Hong Kong.

It is useful to compare the current unrest over the coronavirus with the annual seasonal flu. In the latest issue of Flu Express, a weekly report issued by the Hong Kong government’s Centre for Health Protection, it states that 23 people died from seasonal influenza during the week starting Jan 19. And the tally of fatalities from this type of flu for this winter season in Hong Kong so far is 65.

This recent frenzy around acquiring face masks raises some interesting questions, not only about their general need and usefulness but also about human nature in general. A look at a few numbers can help put the excitement into perspective

The number of deaths due to seasonal influenza in the United States tells a similar story. Estimates from the Center for Disease Control so far this influenza season, which tends to start in the autumn and run through the winter, show that up to 25,000 people have died among the 20 million cases of the flu that have been recorded. Two years ago, 61,000 died.

Beyond a comparison of influenza strains, there is another comparison that puts the spotlight on human behavior. Hong Kong government statistics for last year’s seasonal flu vaccination uptake reveal that well less than half of the population of those over 65 years of age received a shot, and less than 10 percent of those between 50 and 64 got one. Undoubtedly, the number of adults under 50 who got the shot was minuscule.

Interestingly, the Mayo Clinic, one of America’s most respected hospitals and medical research centers, claims that although a mask can help against catching or spreading the flu, getting an influenza vaccination is more effective.

In the meantime, face masks continue to be the focus. In Canada, for example, masks are sold out in Toronto and Vancouver. Canada, with a grand total of four cases of the coronavirus so far and no deaths, however, is hardly a hotbed of the pathogen, but no matter. Perhaps it’s human nature to want to take charge of one’s own well-being, and putting on a mask is a lot less painful than receiving a needle.

Admittedly, in the case of the coronavirus, there is still no shot available and it may be quite some time before there is. However, because the uptake for the seasonal flu vaccination is so low among the general population here, even when the seasonal flu virus is so deadly year after year, the present hullabaloo over face masks appears totally irrational.

Certainly, it would be naive at this stage to underplay the seriousness of the coronavirus. We are still in the early stages of the outbreak and it seems to do no harm to follow the old adage — better safe than sorry. On the other hand, somewhat ironically, all the hysteria and criticism surrounding the shortage of masks, and the resulting surge in sales at inflated prices and usage when they finally become available, will probably end up bringing about much more success at preventing the spread of the seasonal flu than the coronavirus.

The author is a commentator on local and environmental issues.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.