By Mohamed Juma Jalloh

The piece of cloth worn by many people on the lower part of the face could be considered as a recent health phenomenon. It is a novelty that has become fashionable out of a negative situation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on expert advice, the face mask is considered as one of the uncontested precautionary measures to combating the spread of COVID -19.

After the practice of hand washing and sanitizing, it is simple to decipher the preponderance of face masks, changing the appearance of people. For some people, there is no option unless to abide by the face mask precautionary measure.

They are simply not risk takers and have become recalcitrant in entertaining the narrative of the doubters and disbelievers on the existence of COVID -19. For medical patients with breathing difficulties they have complained of near asphyxiation. For some whose masks are wet due to the torrential rainy season, wearing a face mask could be an invitation to cold and other diseases such as pneumonia. In which case, the wearing of face mask has become indispensable to many Sierra Leoneans.

The wearing of face masks is gradually becoming a convention owing to its synonymy with the present global reality. It is becoming obvious that hand washing and face masking are the cheapest and most popular means of preventing COVID -19. Despite the lackluster mode of implementing COVID -19 restrictions, the wearing of face masks has become a vogue in present day Sierra Leone.

Before the advent of COVID 19, Sierra Leoneans could have scarcely dreamt of putting on a face mask whenever venturing out in public. For many, the idea of persistently putting on a face mask was far- fetched. The scene of the masking of people enmasse could only be pictured on satellite television.

At the turn of the millennium, television viewers were inundated with face mask images during the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in South East Asia. Later, China had to grapple with the counter -productive effects of rapid industrialization.

Carbon monoxide fumes emanating from factories cause air pollution over many Chinese cities. At the time, many Chinese residents were advised by health authorities to unfailingly put on a face mask by way of preventing polluted air filtering through the lungs. The advice was legitimate because it has been established by medical experts that the inhalation of poisonous gas is one of the outstanding causes of lung cancer. For that reason, when the Corona virus breaks out in Wuhan province in China, it was very simple for people to adhere to the practice of face masking. This was made possible because previous health and environmental problems in China have left a legacy of face masking.

Comparatively, Sierra Leone and other African countries have become epicenters to other virulent pandemics such as Ebola. It is agreeable that the nature, signs, symptoms and mode of transmission of Ebola and Corona diseases are fundamentally different. Despite the highly contagious nature of the Ebola virus, advice on the use of face mask was never contemplated by the medical experts.

In fact, the practice of regular hand washing was seen as the most effective means of combating Ebola. Hand washing has transcended the Ebola epidemic, slowly evolving as a tradition among Sierra Leoneans. Even after the end of Ebola the practice has lingered, evidenced by the popular hand washing veronica buckets regularly placed in front of many public offices.

Comparatively, whereas face masks can be haphazardly worn, it is very difficult to feign hand washing.

For many Muslims, the practice of hand washing is obligatory owing to the purification rituals one performs before the routine observation of the five daily prayers. On the other hand, some people might prefer holding the face masks casually on their hands. Others might prefer leaving the face masks midway under the jawbone, exposing others to saliva that oozes from the mouth during speech. The careless imposition of the face masks is tantamount to no masking. By sneezing and coughing, droplets of COVID -19 might easily escape through the air rendering others susceptible to the disease. Therefore, the mantra advocated by some medical students is “masking up to the maximum.”

With all the local and international resources trickling in to combat COVID -19, it is advisable for NACOVERC to be providing face masks for some people. By simply providing the cotton material, the tailoring units of the police and the military could be utilised to produce millions of facemask for Sierra Leoneans. Passengers from the east and west end of the city who make a living in the city center can be offered face masks for free. Some passengers can put on a face mask before leaving home, but the hassle for transportation during rush hours can cause a mask to drop.

By positioning at strategic locations, people in public transportation who have lost their face masks can be easily provided with one by the police. Even some who lack the wherewithal to possess a facemask can be provided with one. Assuming that every individual has the financial means to purchase a facemask can be a farce. Standing at the entrance of local markets, such as Dove Cut and Congo markets, could serve as a platform for the mass distribution of face masks.

The open market setting and the pedestrian congestion in these markets, provide the appropriate platform for massive face mask distribution. Many people cannot risk squeezing from family food expenses to buy a facemask. Marian Conteh is a widowed mother with two sons to feed for at least two times a day.

“Ensuring that my kids don’t get hungry is my first priority.” The widow confessed to nightwatch. It is highly likely that many women could be in a similar situation as Marian Conteh. Irrespective of the risk of contracting COVID -19, many poor bread winners in Sierra Leone prefer satisfying the physiological needs of the family, instead of buying facemasks. As time progresses without a universally agreed COVID -19 vaccine the lax implementation of the facemask regulation has rendered the fight against COVID -19 incredulous to some people. Such a laid back mode of executing the COVID -19 regulations has further amplified the misnomer attached to the disease.

Initially, the implementation was rigidly enforced as reports of police raids in some places of worship were rife. Overtime, the police and military officers are gradually turning a blind eye to the COVID -19 violations. Ever since the curfew was slightly shifted from 9pm to 11pm, it seems as if the entertainment world is on its own. The proliferation of pubs across the city has aided the lawlessness associated with the fight against COVID 19.

In some pubs across the capital city Freetown, people can be seen partying without adhering to the social distancing regulation. Men and women can be seen cuddling as if every facet of socio-economic life has returned to normalcy. It seems as if COVID -19 has been declared over by the health authorities.

It is very difficult to take away the convivial attitude of Sierra Leoneans, but the premature openings of party floodgates are counter-productive in the fight against COVID -19. Some “bars,” as they are popularly called, operate beyond the stipulated curfew hour of 11pm. It is true that when people are engaged in a drinking spree it is very difficult to put on a face mask but it rationalistic to at least observe some social distancing among customers.

People can be seen partying around town up till 3am in the morning without any warning or cautioning from law enforcement officers. In some pubs, the police willingly participate in the merriment when they are offered “token” or free drinks. It simply begs the question: Are the owners of these entertainment centers above the law?

Some bar owners are boastful to see influential people in society frequent their pubs, which could serve as a protective strategy to violating COVID -19 restrictions with impunity. In fact, in some pubs and night clubs, motorbikes can be seen waiting outside to transport customers to their homes. Allegations do abound that these bikes are owned by state security officials and are used as a means of extortion to transport people at night from the pubs to residences.

Where self-discipline is lacking from policy makers and law enforcers, the efforts directed towards the COVID -19 fight could be rendered futile. In the midst of fighting COVID -19, if law enforcers have become law breakers, denials and doubts regarding the existence of the disease can only be heightened among the general population.

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