He’s been a controversial figure during the coronavirus pandemic for his continuously outlandish and highly critical rhetoric aimed at Australia, the US and anyone else who challenges China on a series of issues.
But at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the editor-in-chief of Chinese state-run tabloid the Global Times, Hu Xijin, issued a desperate plea to help the Western world in their upcoming fight against the virus.
Hu noted the advice of health authorities overseas, including in Australia, was that face masks were not needed in the push to curtail the spread of the virus.
“Suggesting people not wear face mask is seriously misleading,” he said on Twitter on March 2 when Australia had just 32 cases.
Suggesting people not wear face mask is seriously misleading. All of the Chinese experts have advised people to wear face mask when in contact with others during time of epidemic and consider it one of the most effective measures. Please heed suggestion of Chinese experts. pic.twitter.com/xUxq11m7Bg— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) March 2, 2020
While the virus’s original epicentre in Wuhan underwent arguably the strictest lockdown seen during the pandemic to successfully eliminate the virus in February, it was implemented hand in hand with the widespread use of masks.
“All of the Chinese experts have advised people to wear face mask when in contact with others during [the] time of epidemic and consider it one of the most effective measures,” Hu said.
“Please heed suggestion of Chinese experts.”
Yet Australia along with dozens of badly-hit countries failed to advise people to wear masks in public, which at the time was against their own experts’ advice, and in line with the World Health Organisation’s recommendations.
There was also considerable concern Australia’s stockpile of face masks wasn’t sufficient with fears a similar outbreak seen in Europe could lead to shortages of personal protective equipment for essential medical workers.
Australian authorities ignored calls
Professor Mary-Louise McLaws, an epidemiologist at the University of NSW and advisor to the World Health Organisation (WHO), said the WHO also feared such shortages globally and was not in a position to recommend the use of fabric masks “without any evidence” to suggest they were effective.
Yet once the WHO had changed their advice on face masks on June 5 urging governments to advise masks in areas social distancing wasn’t possible, Prof McLaws’ calls for widespread use of masks in public fell on deaf ears.
“We did a few things that could have been done a bit faster,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
“I could not get the authorities to change their rhetoric... and I was surprised it continued.”
She said while masks at the peak of Australia’s lockdowns were not necessary in all settings due to indoor and outdoor gathering restrictions, it was “illogical” not to advise the use of masks in settings where distancing wasn’t possible.
Prof McLaws said while the latest science behind fabric masks isn’t “top level”, it is clear that when there is universal mask use, the transmission rates “go down considerably”.
Yet by June 5, Prof McLaws believes the state and federal governments were struggling to backflip on their earlier advice that masks were only for people with symptoms.
She told Yahoo News Australia that such advice “was only half the story” and masks were worn by medical workers without symptoms because it filters the air they’re inhaling.
There was also substantial research from February that indicated people are infectious before they develop symptoms.
Mandatory masks should have come as early as May
Prof McLaws said masks should have been made mandatory in certain high-risk areas in late May as cases rose, in particular in the Cedar Meats abattoir cluster – an industry that had already proven difficult to contain outbreaks in counties such as the US and Germany.
“That was screaming out for a red flag to be examined,” she said, while indicating public transport and other workplace environments should have been assessed.
“We need to become more proactive instead of waiting for a disaster and then to react.”
“And the proactive is masks, which are cheap and not perfect, but if everybody wears it then your exhaled particles are filtered and my inhaled particles are filtered, twice increasing the safety.”
While on June 6 – a day after WHO’s advice changed – Victoria recorded zero new cases, it had followed 14 days where the cumulative case total had topped 100 – a marker Prof McLaws believes should have triggered mandatory masks across Melbourne.
“It escalates dramatically once it gets to 100,” she said.
Masks could have prevented lockdown, expert says
The date advised by Prof McLaws is more than six weeks before the day the Victorian government enforced mandatory masks in Melbourne on July 22.
The Head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute at UNSW, Professor Raina MacIntyre, told Yahoo News Australia an introduction of masks earlier would have prevented the need for the stringent measures Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews has rolled out over the last several weeks.
“Masks can flatten the curve and prevent lockdown by reducing transmission. They are more effective if used universally, and used early,” she said.
Prof McLaws said if the Victorian government were reluctant to address masks on June 6, it should have been looked at again at the beginning of July, when daily cases edged towards 100.
Masks ‘should be mandatory in NSW hotspots’
Prof McLaws is now advocating for widespread usage of masks across NSW and to make them mandatory in areas where clusters arise.
She said NSW’s 14-day total of locally acquired cases had passed 100 on June 21 and has failed to suppress the total since.
“It’s still not good [in NSW]... we’ve got problems”.
Prof McLaws said the recent Batemans Bay cluster is the “perfect opportunity” to enforce the wearing of masks in an entire community to drive infections down.
“We’ve got a very small yet highly inter-connected group in a community... they should all be wearing masks.”
“And once that becomes dispersed, that’s when you say all mask use.”
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.