Tuesday, September 28, 2021
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The great mask dilemma

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A LEAFLET about the cancellation of this year’s Fasnacht celebrations recently popped into our Swiss letterbox. The parades, fancy dress parties and Guggenmusik (marching bands) won’t be happening because of the coronavirus restrictions. The most striking feature is always the traditionally carved masks – originally caricatures to make fun of local worthies, but now with grotesque devils and warty old witches added in.  Everyone joins in the parades, and loves the hideous creatures who throw sweets and clouds of confetti. At the end, it’s hilarious when the old Wiibli witches take off their masks and reveal the grinning boys and girls disguised behind them!

Not long afterwards, an eight-page circular was also delivered, again to do with covering up your face. It reminded everyone to vote in the latest Swiss referendum on March 7, and ‘say Yes to the ban on face veils’. The pamphlet explained the issues in great detail, and emphasised: ‘Once the exceptional circumstances of the Corona Crisis are over, the Swiss can reclaim their basic values, which allow free people to show their faces whenever they meet . . . Let us vote in solidarity for freedom, equality and security, and ban the face veil!’

Two of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, St Gallen and Ticino, have already introduced the ban in public places, as have France, Belgium, Austria, Bulgaria and (partially) Germany, Turkey and Norway. Local bans are in place in Spain and Italy. The European Court of Human Rights has considered such bans appropriate since 2014.

The bans specifically refer to coverings which are permanently worn in public. Exceptions are clearly indicated in the Swiss pamphlet, and refer to face coverings which are worn temporarily, by both men and women, for the purposes of entertainment – such as Halloween and Fasnacht, and for health and safety – such as potentially dangerous sports, or while using industrial equipment, or bee-keeping, or motor cycle helmets, and of course surgical masks worn during medical procedures. These are all temporary measures and are not intended to disguise the wearer’s identity. (Where this is the intention, for example during violent demonstrations or criminal acts, they are not exempted from the ban.)

The government is trying to dissuade the nation from voting yes, but opinion polls suggest that 63 per cent of the population intend to vote that way.  

How ironic that this referendum is being held at a time when government-led strategies in Switzerland and throughout the world to combat Covid-19 have introduced a whole new dimension to the issue of mask-wearing.  

There has been a mask-wearing requirement here since February 2020, but at first only in shops, public buildings and public transport, before any wider lockdown restrictions were imposed. It has now been extended to all public areas, and encouraged everywhere outdoors.

This is in spite of the fact that some experts have cast serious doubts on the effectiveness of masks. Dr Roger Koops worked in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology Industry for over 25 years, and before retiring in 2017, he spent 12 years as a consultant focused on quality assurance/control and issues related to regulatory compliance. He has considerable experience of protective clothing requirements and procedures, especially PPE. He has written extensively on the subject and lays out his views clearly in the journal of the American Institute for Economic Research. It is a must-read for all obligated mask-wearers and policy-makers alike.

The surgical mask, he states, is able to reduce viral transmission to some extent, but ‘it is not intended for use outside of a controlled sterile hospital surgical field’. But flimsy paper or cloth masks can act as an intermediary in transmission, and even as a contact or airborne source, still allowing the virus into the atmosphere. They are almost 100 per cent misused owing to lack of training and understanding of the processes. As a result, mask-wearing can actually increase the risk both to the wearer and to others around them. Dr Koops recommends instead better educating the public in good hygiene practice and how to maintain their immune systems through healthy lifestyles.

What an astonishing dichotomy now faces the people of Switzerland as they approach their latest People’s Vote about banning the wearing of face coverings in public places in order to uphold their civic virtues of freedom, equality and security. At the same time their government removes their personal choice by forcing them to cover their faces in a manner which Dr Koops describes as punishing the healthy and failing to protect the vulnerable. He claims, from the perspective of his residence in the US, that ‘we have lost the meaning of Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, to Land of the Imprisoned, Home of the Afraid’.

It will be interesting to learn the result of the March 7 referendum. If there were to be a Swiss-wide, indeed a Europe- or even world-wide, secret ballot on whether the public should be forced by law to wear a Covid-19 face mask everywhere in public – that would be really interesting. 

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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