To mask or not to mask? We asked the superheroes

So who wins – Spider-Man or Superman? Well, I’m afraid it’s a tie. Will a mask give you some protection, provided that you use it properly? Yes. But should you prioritise mask wearing ahead of other measures like social distancing and thorough hand washing? No. 

By Bruce Wayne

It’s after-work drinks on Friday 20 March, 2020. There’s anxiety in the air, because there’s potentially Coronavirus in the air. Maybe that’s the reason people are drinking more than usual.

Your tipsy colleague excitedly tells you that their child is a big fan of Peppa Pig. You don’t only hear what they’re saying, you feel it too – courtesy of those spittle-spraying plosions.

You recoil, paranoid that the infectious droplets have already found their way into your system. The future flashes before you: in a few days’ time you’re running a fever and coughing non-stop. A few days after that, Dr Ashley Bloomfield is announcing deadpan to the nation that you’re the latest case. Then you’re surrounded by medical staff in hazmat suits who put needles in your arms and swabs down your throat and feed you gruel for seven years. And even after you’ve finally recovered, society snubs you for a further seven years.

Snap back to the present. Oh, how you wished to be wearing a mask at that very moment, even if it meant that you had to strain your three Coronas for the evening through it on their way to your mouth. But how helpful are those masks? Can they stop viruses? Will they really make you invincible like Spider-Man, or can you be invincible without them like Superman?

The topic has been up for discussion in the media a lot lately, so time to do some research of my own. I ping a text off to my doctor friend. “Hey man, hope you are coping ok with everything right now. Got enough masks? Should we all be wearing them?”

He shrugs through cyberspace. “Hope we can contain the spread… yeah I think you could wear masks if you’re going out, if you can find some.”

Bah. That’s not the definitive answer I was hoping for. People from some cultures, particularly Asian cultures, swear by the masks for health reasons. And common sense would suggest that they’re probably a good idea, given that doctors wear them in high stakes situations. A surgeon certainly doesn’t want anything falling from his person and contaminating a surgical site mid-procedure.

So I set to Googling and read a range of material, some well-informed and some less so. The easiest way to present the information is to take each side of the argument in turn. Without further ado, our masked hero Spider-Man opens with a five-hit combo:

1. N95 filter masks provide excellent protection against anything airborne. That’s universally accepted by medical professionals and lay-people alike.

2. Even surgical masks provide protection that is better than nothing. Indeed, some studies have shown that surgical masks can reduce the spread of droplets by up to 80% (although most show the reduction rate is somewhat lower than that). That’s why sick people in particular are told to wear them.

3. Masks stop us from touching our face, which is very important – given that our nose and mouth are the main entry points for foreign objects into our body. Touché, Spidey, touché.

4. Sometimes it’s impossible to rely on social distancing alone. This is particularly the case for Spider-Man, when he’s swooping around the packed streets of NYC or getting up close and personal with the bad guys. Or in Asia, where populations are much more dense than in Aotearoa.

5. Masks give wearers a sense of security, which allows them to at least do the essential things. The fact is that some people in our society probably wouldn’t feel safe right now going to the supermarket without a mask on.

 

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman, and he’s arrived just in time to politely clap Spider-Man off the stage. He launches into his rebuttal with authority:

1. Masks don’t provide reliable protection. Particles can get through masks, or even get stuck in masks. In practice even N95 masks won’t make you airtight. If you’ve ever tried one on, you’ll know how impossible a task it is to get all the moulding tabs sitting perfectly flush against your face. Also, masks do nothing to prevent particles getting into your eyes.

2. Masks can actually result in you touching your nose and mouth more often. That’s because you inevitably need to both put on and take off the mask. And if you don’t do so with squeaky clean hands, you’re putting yourself at risk.

3. Masks can give wearers a false sense of security. As mentioned earlier, they can make us feel brave, but the other side of the coin is that we may consequently put ourselves in riskier situations, for example we may be less likely to observe social distancing guidelines.

4. Social distancing and hand washing are more effective measures for the general public. The exact distance cough and sneeze particles can travel is contentious, but the upper limit is generally accepted to be about six feet, or 1.8 metres (for coughing at least – sneezing isn’t a recognised symptom of Covid-19). So if you adhere to the two metre distancing rule, then the only way you’re likely to catch the virus is by touching a contaminated surface – hence the necessity of frequent hand washing.

5. When we buy masks, we are potentially depleting the supply for those who really need them. That is the sick people, as well as anyone who may not be able to observe social distancing around the sick, i.e. medical professionals. New Zealand’s authorities have sufficient reserves of masks at present, but whether supply and distribution become significant issues going forward remains to be seen.

So who wins – Spider-Man or Superman? Well, I’m afraid it’s a tie. Will a mask give you some protection, provided that you use it properly? Yes. But should you prioritise mask wearing ahead of other measures like social distancing and thorough hand washing? No.

Anyway, everyone knows that Batman is cooler than both Spider-Man and Superman. And everyone should know that the best possible thing we can do, to protect both ourselves and others, is to be like Batman and stay in our batcaves. So back to watching The Dark Knight on Netflix. Happy Home Holidays everyone!