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'Cover Face Even After Lockdown': Meet the Scientist Who Got Govt to Implement Home-Made Masks

Dr. Shailja Vaidya Gupta.

Dr. Shailja Vaidya Gupta.

While many of us are trying to make peace with the fact that once the lockdown is lifted, it won't be the same world we're used to - it'll be a post-Covid-19 world, one devoid of handshakes and our faces covered.

Face-masks have become compulsory in some of the major cities in India. And soon, even as the nationwide lockdown, for the third time, gets extended for two more weeks, stepping out without a mask won't be an option for Indians in the near future.

Incidentally, the wearing of face masks was made mandatory in Delhi, Mumbai and Uttar Pradesh last month despite the World Health Organisation still advising that such measures are not necessary to stem the coronavirus pandemic.

So, why did India decide to make masks compulsory? The answer would be with Dr Shailja Vaidya Gupta who was instrumental behind the move. She was, in fact, the first person to come up with the idea of home-made masks.

"We were looking at a country which not only has different demography but immensely dense pockets where isolation and social-distancing is a luxury," said Dr Gupta in an interview to News18.

Senior Adviser to the Office of the Principal Scientific Adviser said that masks were the solution forward in India's case.

"There was the debate that it could, and could not help. Then the World Health Organization issued an advisory and many scientific papers had proved that Covid-19 spread through aerosols. This lead to us implementing masks," she said.

Dr Gupta also said masks will continue to be a part of our lives even after the lockdown ends.

The transfer of the virus currently has been traced to be through respiratory droplets, touching surfaces infected by the virus, and through aerosols transferred by sneezing, couching or even talking. The simple way to stop them, as advised by the WHO has been face covers--- masks, handkerchiefs or anything (even an old T-shirt) to cover your mouth and nose.

"We could be spreading the virus by talking. The simple moisture from your mouth could land on someone else's face and help in spreading the virus. But if everyone wore a mask, that could control it from spreading," she said.

Gupta explained that the mention of 'home-made' was necessary for a country like India where the announcement of compulsory masks would mean people running to medical shops, leading to a shortage in surgical and N95 masks which were required for front-line essential and healthcare workers. The same way panic-buying in the first few days of the outbreak had left to a shortage of hand sanitizers.

"We were not going to recommend surgical or N95 masks, because those had to be strictly required for front-line workers. Home-made masks, therefore, were the solution. Anybody could make them, you wouldn't require a sewing machine, just needle and thread would work, and sometimes, simply even typing a cloth around your mouth tightly would do the job," she explained.

While the WHO has issued strict guidelines on how to, and how not to wear a mask, home-made ones always pose a threat - if not worn properly, they create the false illusion of security and the wearer risk chances of infection. The mask ideally should cover from the bridge of your nose to the bottom of your chin, and be sanitized properly, with hot water and disinfectant.

Gupta's team along with the announcement put out the advisory, on how to use it, and how to properly sanitize it - guidelines, which included how to dry it and run it over with a hot iron to sterilize it.

But the challenge is we may have to adapt to the practice of wearing masks for much longer.

In India, tourists from Japan and South Korea can often be seen wearing a face-mask, which is only a common sight on Indian during north-India's winters.

"It's not impossible to follow or adapt. Post lockdown, even if it is partially, we will have to go out in the open, and masks are very important - they're an easy way to stop direct contamination," says Gupta.

While many of us are trying to make peace with the fact that once the lockdown is lifted, it won't be the same world we're used to - it'll be a post-Covid-19 world, one devoid of handshakes and fistbumps, and many newer restrictions, masks may become a social norm.

The problem with the new novel coronavirus is that scientists are still understanding the virus, and since the strain is still being studied, and the data on the virus is constantly changing, it may be impossible to determine when exactly the virus will 'disappear.'

"Until there is a vaccine to the virus, we will have to take individual safety in our own hands. The virus is not going to go away post-lock-down, and we may have to adapt ourselves around it," Dr Gupta said.

She also has other ideas on improving hygiene and sanitation. A no-contact approach of living: sinks with faucets operated by foot. Dr Gupta said that this could be a solution for hygiene purposes in facilities shared by multiple people, especially in densely crowded slums like Dharavi where one toilet is used by over hundreds of people. Operated by foot, the machine would require almost zero contact with hands, and hence, lesser chance of the virus transferring inside your body.

"It also saves water," adds Gupta. "You don't always remember to turn off the tap while washing your hands for 20 seconds, but with a foot-operated faucet, you will be more likely to step off from the pedal while scrubbing your hands."