Masks are in hot demand in South Africa as coronavirus concerns grow, with pharmacies reporting an increase in sales and online promotions running hot.
Some masks are selling for as little as R4 each, while others are selling for R150, depending on the quality. Despite shortages elsewhere in the world – particularly in countries that, unlike SA, have confirmed cases of Covid-19 – local retailers say they're managing to keep shelves stocked.
The novel coronavirus continues to spread across the globe with over 89 000 people diagnosed, and just over 3 000 people dead.
But wearing a mask may not help prevent infection. Experts say you are more likely to get infected by touching contaminated surfaces and then your face, rather than from a cough-induced droplet traveling through the air.
A simple surgical face mask is designed to protect others from you, rather than the other way around. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends wearing these simple surgical masks when you are sick, to reduce the risk of contaminating others.
South Africans are not used to seeing them, but in densely populated cites in Asia they are a common sight on trains and in public spaces, often worn as a courtesy by those who have something as minor as the common cold.
These masks can easily be found in your local pharmacy, and they go for as little as R4 per unit.
Some retailers are also selling more sophisticated respiratory masks, for prices up to R150 per unit.
In South Africa these masks, known as N95 masks, are used to prevent airborne diseases spread. These are important for doctors working with highly infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.
The "N95" designation means that when tested, the respirator blocks at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles, such as airborne tuberculosis. If properly fitted, the filtration ability of a N95 respirator exceeds that of a face mask. However, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not eliminate the risk of infection.
Jantjie Taljaard, head of the division for infectious diseases at the University of Stellenbosch’s Faculty of Medicines and Health Sciences, says N95 masks are only used in a hospital environment where procedures and treatment may cause droplets to aerosolise or break up into microdroplets.
“The respirators fit very tightly and cannot, however, be used for long periods as it becomes very uncomfortable," said Taljaard. "So people tend to not keep N95 masks on for a long period, which then negates any potential benefit.
On Saturday, US vice President Mike Pence said at a press conference that there is no need for people in the US to buy and wear masks to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus.
"Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of [the novel coronavirus] to help prevent the spread of the disease to others. The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)," states the CDC on their website.