Mask up Sydney

24 September 2020 | Posted In: #136 Spring 2020,

Sydneysiders seem resistant to wearing masks in public. But, as Gabriel Metcalf argues, if we want to avoid Melbourne’s fate, we should be prepared to suck it up and cover up. 

People in Sydney are still not wearing masks. Even as COVID-19 cases in Melbourne remain intractably high, a deeply ingrained cultural resistance to mask-wearing has not budged. The NSW government advice advises the wearing of masks where social distancing can’t be guaranteed — but does not require them.

Country after country has changed approach on this and there are now numerous academic studies confirming the benefits of mask wearing to reduce transmission. But Australia still has not and is now one of only a few countries in the developed world not requiring masks. And as anyone who goes out in Sydney knows — without a requirement to do so — most people are not wearing masks.

NSW has had an exemplary response to the pandemic and is doing an incredible job with contact tracing and testing. A requirement to wear masks could be an essential tool for allowing Sydney to avoid the fate of Melbourne. The reason to wear masks is to reduce the rate of community transmission. Wearing masks in public is not primarily intended to keep the wearer safe; it is intended to reduce the likelihood that people who have COVID — but do not have symptoms — will unintentionally transmit it to someone else.

If enough people wear masks (80 percent seems to be an important threshold), then the rate of transmission can go below one — meaning that each person with COVID infects less than one other person, so over time the cluster disappears. No one likes to wear masks. But we are all going to have to make some sacrifices to get through this pandemic. Wearing masks in public, indoor spaces is annoying, but it does not ask much of us. The real hope here is that if enough people wear masks, we can avoid the more draconian options — a second lockdown and a repeated start-stop-restart cycle which would devastate our economy and cause intense hardship with consequences for years.

Melbourne didn’t mandate its mask requirement until after it imposed a lockdown. But Sydney can choose a different path and impose the mask requirement as a way to forestall and hopefully avoid a second lockdown entirely. The point here is to come up with a sustainable way of living with the virus until there is a vaccine or a treatment that works. By changing our habits to wear masks we can help to slow the rate of transmission, allowing the economy to stay open and life to go on as much as possible. The only way this will work is with a mandate. In the real world, it is not likely we will get above 80 percent compliance with wearing masks through a voluntary exhortation. It is simply too big of a cultural change.

The right course of action is probably to define the locations where mask-wearing is mandatory — on public transport, on airplanes, in hospitals, churches, shops and at funerals for example. It’s not feasible to wear masks in bars and restaurants, and it’s now clear that when people are outdoors there is a much-reduced risk of transmission. Parks and beaches are not the problem. The problem is people being in confined, indoor spaces.

It would be devastating to have Sydney go back into lockdown. In order to avoid that, one tool is to require face coverings. Throughout the pandemic we have repeatedly heard the phrase “there are no easy choices”. This is one of those times. Getting people to wear masks isn’t the only solution, but it could play a pivotal role in getting NSW back to normality sooner and faster.

Gabriel Metcalf is CEO of the Committee of Sydney.