Wearing a mask likely saved my life — twice

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The widespread American opposition to wearing masks is a national challenge. President Biden’s federal mask mandate is a start, but people need to do more. The science is clear (more of that in a moment). Wearing a mask is about self-preservation — take it from me: I’ve had at least two close calls.

Since the initial global lockdown was relaxed last August, I’ve taken three long-haul trips to Africa, with six transfers via New York airports, and four flights within West Africa. My missions have included co-managing a partnership between the public and private sector to accelerate coronavirus testing and vaccine deployment. Telecommuting in a pandemic is helpful, but presence — particularly when you are interacting between cultures — is required to get the job done.

On my travels, I established rules: Always wear a mask in public settings — no exceptions — and double mask when boarding and de-boarding planes; at traveler bottlenecks like health, security, and immigration checks, or when crammed into a crowded bus or other people movers, I add a face shield. No messing around.    

On the plane, I eat only after those around me have finished and returned their masks. I carry a travel-size air sanitizer for plane bathrooms. Important, as it is often not possible to wait three minutes for the air to recirculate.

In Africa, I always pack extra face coverings for those who might show up to a meeting without one, and am not shy to tell someone, “the mask must cover your mouth and your nose.” I avoid indoor dining and elevators. I hydrate. And if I chose to use the gym, it is only during the unpopular hours.

I have had to submit to COVID-19 testing 16 times. Thankfully, all of them were negative. And no, I do not have antibodies. I checked. It has been just me —adventurous, exposed, sometimes anxious — and my Amazon-purchased, double-ply, disposable, charcoal-black, surgical-like masks, and generous applications of hand sanitizer.

Initially, Africa fared much better than other regions of the world due to early interventions to seal borders and to experience in dealing with other infectious diseases, including the Ebola epidemic of 2014. However, a second wave, fueled by the U.K. and South Africa variants, along with COVID-19 fatigue, and the aftermath of year-end gatherings, is now overwhelming health facilities. The continent’s death rate is now overtaking the global average.

Despite my rituals, over the past four months, I have had two close calls — at least, two that I am aware of.

In the first instance, I had a 45-minute session with a senior government official in Ghana. We held our discussion seated at a four-person conference table, passing my computer screen back and forth to view a presentation. The office was small, the air still and heavy because we opted to keep the air-conditioning off. My colleague was fatigued and distracted. Two days later, he tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. He is still recovering today.

The second time, I brought it on myself. It was my last Saturday night in-country, and I persisted in recruiting an under-the-weather friend to join me for a cultural night of dance and song. We rode together in the back seat of an Uber for 20 minutes to the outdoor performance. After greeting our host, my friend begged off, saying he “would catch up with me in the morning.” It was nearly a month before I heard from him again; he was stricken with a severe case of COVID-19.  

In both cases, I am convinced my mask saved me.

So is the U.S. Navy medical doctor who works with me on the COVID-19 partnership. He told me: “When both people are masked, it’s like you wearing a N-95.”

And that brings us to the science.

On Feb. 5, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released two studies affirming that mask mandates reduce coronavirus hospitalizations, and further, that when the general public is compelled by authorities to #maskup, there is overwhelming compliance.

Researchers from the CDC and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, examined ten sites in states across California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, and Oregon that implemented mask mandates between March and October. They found that hospitalization growth rates fell by up to 5.6 percentage points in places where local leaders required mask use.

In a parallel undertaking, the CDC, in partnership with five public universities with student populations ranging from 29,000 to 52,000, and one private university with only 2,300 students, showed a nearly 90 percent acceptance of on-campus mandatory mask mandates.

And last week, another CDC study showed that that double-masking can block 92 percent of infectious particles.

All of this new data backs up the Executive Order President Biden issued on his first day in office, requiring masking on federal property and on public transportation. And the studies reinforce Biden’s messaging on Twitter: “For your family, for your neighbors, for your country — wear a mask.”

No one knows this truth more than our diplomats operating overseas, who have been the unacclaimed and unrecognized front-line responders of this pandemic. They have sought to maintain business-as-usual; opting for outdoor meetings wherever possible, and when not, concealing their discomfort when protocol demands that every seat at the conference table is occupied. Throughout this difficult year, they have taken their assigned places at formal public events and ventured in the field when their presence was required. Armed only with a mask.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 are now being rolled-out in the United States, but it will happen in fits and starts, as demand far exceeds the available supply. This is doubly so in Africa, where only 20 percent of demand has been purchased through COVAX, the global initiative that seeks equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines — and not a single jab has yet taken place under this facility.

In the meantime, as we all wait impatiently, do not let anyone tell you that wearing a mask is solely for the protection of others. That’s an outright falsehood. If you don’t believe the scientists, take it from me.

K. Riva Levinson is president and CEO of KRL International LLC, a D.C.-based consultancy that works in the world’s emerging markets, award-winning author of “Choosing the Hero: My Improbable Journey and the Rise of Africa’s First Woman President” (Kiwai Media, June 2016). You can follow her @rivalevinson

Tags Africa anti-mask coronavirus containment coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 face masks Face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic Ghana Joe Biden mask wearing

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