A man wearing a face mask is reflected in a window of a bookstore in Paris, France, on April 26, 2020. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua)
In a shift which many Europeans would have never imagined, face mask-wearing is now a phenomenon in the streets of major European cities like Brussels, Milan, Prague and Paris.
Equally dramatically, the official position of European governments has changed in less than two months. Multiple governments, from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Austria to Germany, Belgium and France, now require or recommend their citizens to cover their mouth and nose in public spaces.
The tide is shifting. As European countries are easing the current stay-at-home order, face masks are set to play an even bigger part in the post-lockdown period, helping reduce COVID-19 transmissions from asymptomatic carriers -- who are not ill but can nonetheless spread the virus.
COVID-19, which has made more than 1.2 million people sick and caused almost 120,000 deaths in Europe as of Sunday, will undoubtedly continue to be with the mankind for a long time, given the absence of a vaccine and an effective drug.
In East Asian countries like China, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, wearing masks in public has been widely accepted to help limit the spread of the coronavirus.
But in much of Europe, people wearing face masks were often met with strange looks in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. In some disturbing cases reported in European cities, Asians wearing face masks had been racially abused and harassed.
At that time, the official position of European governments was also clear -- only people already infected, their carers or health workers need to wear face masks, while for the general population masks were useless.
This has changed dramatically as the COVID-19 pandemic evolved in Europe, along with the increase in scientific knowledge surrounding it.
The Czech Republic was the first European country to make it mandatory for its citizens to wear a mask in public, and said it helped rein in its COVID-19 infections. On March 18, mask wearing became mandatory in the country, and its Prime Minister Andrej Babis has recommended this practice to European and U.S. leaders.
On March 19, Babis in a tweet message called on U.S. President Donald Trump to adopt the measure to curb the virus's spread. "Wearing a simple cloth mask decreases the spread of the virus by 80 percent! Czech Republic has made it OBLIGATORY for its citizens to wear a mask in the public," the prime minister wrote.
Also on Twitter, Babis said he had sent videos to urge most European presidents and prime ministers to do the same.
As of Sunday, the central European country with a population of 10.6 million reported 7,387 confirmed infection cases and 220 deaths, compared with 197,675 cases and 26,644 deaths in Italy and 226,629 cases and 23,190 deaths in Spain.
Following the Czech Republic, neighboring Slovakia has also made mask-wearing compulsory. On March 30, Austria required shoppers to wear masks in supermarkets, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz then saying: "I am fully aware that masks are something foreign to our culture ... It will be a learning phase."
MASK-WEARING GAINS GROUND
On Friday (April 24), Belgium became the latest European country to announce mask-wearing an obligation, as part of a three-phase exit strategy to gradually lift a nationwide lockdown.
Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmes said that the first phase of de-confinement (Phase 1A) will begin on May 4 and one of the first measures is requiring all Belgians aged 12 or over to wear masks on public transport.
The Belgian government will provide at least one free face mask for every citizen, she said. Face masks will also become mandatory for teachers and students aged 12 or over after resumption of school in the second phase, which is scheduled to begin on May 18.
As of Sunday, the country of 11.5 million had 46,134 confirmed infection cases and 7,094 deaths, with a "case fatality rate" of 15.4 percent, one of the highest in Europe.
Before Belgium, Germany had on April 22 made face mask-wearing a must on public transport, after Bremen became the last German federal state to require people to wear face masks.
"The return to a responsible normality remains closely linked to a consistently pursued protection of health. We need regulations as similar as possible in all German states," said North Rhine-Westphalia's Minister President Armin Laschet.
In France, the government has yet to make masks mandatory, but powerful groups, like the National Academy of Medicine, have recommended that they be.
"In order to limit the risk of direct transmission of the virus by the droplets ... wearing an anti-droplets mask covering the nose and mouth ... was recommended," the National Academy of Medicine said in a statement on April 22.
France, which reported 124,575 confirmed cases and 22,856 deaths as of Sunday, looks to ease the nationwide lockdown on May 11 and face masks are expected to play a big part in that.
French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, who will unveil the government's lockdown exit plan to parliament on April 28, has said that wearing a face mask would be "probably" mandatory in public transport. Enditem