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By Mohamed Ag Ayoya - 20 Aug 2020

OpEd: Put a mask on and help others

A trader puts on a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between her and customers at Konyo-konyo market in Juba. @UNICEFSouthSudan/Chol
A trader puts on a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 between her and customers at Konyo-konyo market in Juba. @UNICEFSouthSudan/Chol

Some are colourful, some are playful, others cheeky and some neutral. I’m talking about face masks. Even though there is a large variety of face masks available, relatively few people in South Sudan are using them- although we are in the midst of a global pandemic. In South Sudan where we only have a few weapons against COVID-19 available, we must ensure everyone masks up.

COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease. The main route of transmission is droplets from an infected person’s mouth and nose reaching other human beings. This is also how mumps, rubella and pneumonia are transmitted- diseases affecting children the most. In fact, pneumonia is still one of the top three causes of child mortality in South Sudan.

The droplets coming out of the nose and mouth are quite heavy because they comprise of liquids. To understand it better, you can try to fill a plastic bag of water and throw it and see how far it gets, and then compare it with throwing a ball that is filled with air. The weight of the droplets makes them travel up to two metres. This is why weapon number one against COVID-19 is physical distancing; therefore, always keep a two-meter distance between you and anyone else. When we keep distance, the droplets from an infected person can’t reach make us sick.

We know that physical distancing is almost impossible in South Sudan. People must fetch water in public areas, and many must go to the market or other human dense places daily to earn a living in order to put food on the table for the family. We have all been to markets, bus stations, and other crowded places in South Sudan and we all know how difficult it is to stay two meters apart in those places- even if we try. Meaning, weapon number one against COVID-19 is not always available. We should, therefore, start applying weapon number two against COVID, face masks.

A face mask works as a shield, preventing droplets from your mouth and nose reaching other people. Let’s go back to the test when you are throwing a plastic bag filled with water. Try throwing the bag when you have a huge piece of fabric in front of you and see how far the water bag now gets. You will quickly see it is not very far. This is how the mask works as well.

“But, I’m not sick so why should I wear a mask?” you might ask. From the data we have, 77 per cent of the confirmed cases in South Sudan are asymptomatic, meaning most people who are infected with the COVID-19 virus don’t feel sick. This means that even if the person is feeling fine, he or she can still carry the virus hence infect others and make them very sick. Only a laboratory test can confirm whether you have COVID-19 or not and with limited test capacity you can’t be tested every day. Therefore, as a precaution to prevent transmission and to protect everyone you meet during your day you should be wearing a face mask.

Yet, very few people are wearing masks.  The most common response to why is that they don’t have a mask. A mask doesn’t have to be fancy; you need a good piece of cotton cloth and a proper way to attach it to your face covering the nose and mouth. Don’t wait for a distribution to happen, start protecting the people you love now by making your own mask if you can’t afford to buy one. By doing that, you will also halt transmission of other deadly diseases such as pneumonia, still taking too many young lives in South Sudan today.

UNICEF and partners working on infection prevention and control have taken steps to protect the most vulnerable among us and disseminated 535,376 cloth face masks to community frontline workers, people working in public places and people living in crowded places such as the protection of civilian (PoC) sites and refugee camps. If you are not already wearing a mask when in public, please start today. In particular, I’m calling upon trusted members of the communities, such as government officials, religious leaders, teachers and community leaders, to be good role models in their communities through practicing safe behaviour, specifically by wearing face masks and practicing physical distancing.

Last but not least, we should all use the third weapon against COVID-19, namely washing your hands with soap and clean water frequently and take advantage of the 4,500 handwashing stations that UNICEF and partners have put in public places. We are fighting this pandemic together and only when we act together, can we bend the curve.

OpEd by Mohamed Ag Ayoya, UNICEF South Sudan Representative