Coronavirus: Abrupt reversals on face mask policy raise new questions

People display from their balconies a banner reading "Where are masks? Where are tests?", in Nice, France April 4, 2020.
People display from their balconies a banner reading "Where are masks? Where are tests?", in Nice, France April 4, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, Reuters

The French and US governments are under scrutiny for not acting quickly enough to ensure an adequate supply of facial masks after insisting for weeks that wearing them was unhelpful against the coronavirus before making a dramatic U-turn on that policy in recent days.


After weeks of official statements saying it was not necessary to wear a mask unless you were sick or worked in the medical profession, France's Académie Nationale de Médecine (Academy of Medicine) announced Friday that a mask should be compulsory during outings both during and after the current lockdown

The French government quickly followed with an announcement that the manufacture of non-medical "alternative" masks to be used by the public would be ramped up and, the next day, said it had ordered 2 billion face masks from China.

The reversal came after media reports – notably by investigative news site Mediapart and state-run TV France 2 – that the government’s early insistence that face masks were not useful was, in fact, prompted by a shortage of them.

French doctor and TV personality Marina Carrère d'Encausse on Wednesday described the early official line as a "lie" told "for a good cause" to ensure that medical staff had enough.

But even before that, the French government was giving mixed signals. While officially maintaining that face masks were unnecessary for people without symptoms or who are not caring for coronavirus sufferers, President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to rapidly increase France’s production.

The country's four face mask factories will be making more than 10 million per week by the end of April – compared to 3.3 billion per week before the start of the crisis.

"Before, we believed that we could import masks quickly and in great quantity from the other side of the world ... and that we did not need to store billions and billions of face masks," Macron said during a visit to the Kolmi-Hopen face mask factory near Angers in western France.

Trump 'choosing' not to wear a mask

The most spectacular U-turn on masks came from the United States on Friday, when US President Donald Trump announced that the national health authority now advised Americans to cover their faces when they leave their homes.

Trump seemed to muddy the waters further when he announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended Americans wear cloth masks when outdoors to stem transmission of the virus. But he stressed the advisory was purely voluntary, and that he would not be heeding the recommendation himself.

"With the masks, it's going to be a really voluntary thing. You can do it, you don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it," he said.

But in the absence of any official supply, Americans have been urged to make their own, with household materials including handkerchiefs or even bandannas. 

As the demand for masks heats up internationally, several US allies have complained about the superpower's "Wild West" tactics in outbidding or blocking shipments to buyers who have already signed deals for vital medical supplies.

In France and Germany, senior officials said the United States was paying far above the market price for medical-grade masks from No. 1 producer China, on occasion winning contracts through higher bids even after European buyers believed a deal had been concluded. Brazil's health minister reported a similar incident.

"Money is irrelevant. They pay any price because they are desperate," one high-level official in German Chancellor Angela Merkel's ruling CDU/CSU group told Reuters.

US ‘wasted two months’

Yet as the first alarms sounded in early January that an outbreak of the coronavirus in China might morph into a global pandemic, the Trump administration squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster the federal stockpile of critically needed medical supplies and equipment.

A review of federal purchasing contracts by AP on Sunday showed that federal agencies waited until mid-March to begin placing bulk orders of N95 respirator masks, mechanical ventilators and other equipment needed by front-line health care workers.

By that time, hospitals in several states were treating thousands of infected patients without adequate equipment and were pleading for shipments from the Strategic National Stockpile. That federal cache of supplies was created more than 20 years ago to help bridge gaps in the medical and pharmaceutical supply chains during a national emergency.

Now, three months into the crisis, that stockpile is nearly drained just as the numbers of patients needing critical care is surging. Some state and local officials report receiving broken ventilators and decade-old, dry-rotted masks.

“We basically wasted two months,” Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary during the Obama administration, told AP.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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