It was all over the internet. On 4 February 2020, over 10,000 Hong Kongers lined up -forming a queue that stretched over 4 kilometers in length- in the hope of acquiring one of the 11,000 boxes of 50 surgical masks put on sale by a company in Kowloon Bay, Hong Kong.
That was on 4 February 2020. The sale was planned for 5 February 2020. No need for a degree in rocket science to do the math: 5 – 4 = 1. Yes, thousands of people spent one entire night waiting on the street to buy surgical masks.
Perfect PR stunt. Everyone in Hong Kong has read -or heard- the name of the company that miraculously found 11,000 boxes to put on sale. The interesting part, though, is that they had initially planned to only put 6,000 of those boxes on sale. And keep the other 5,000 boxes for later? Hence artificially create the shortage in masks Hong Kong was riddled with? Then, at a later date sell the remaining 5,000 face masks for a hefty price while, at the same time, pose as the city’s savior? Genius!
Better still! “The company said it did not have formal certification of the product’s health standards because of time pressures.” Read that sentence one more time. And… What the fuck!? Did I really read that right? So, to sum up, ten thousand people lined up for hours in the cold, spending the night on the street, to buy overpriced surgical masks which nobody proved met the required health standards… And people flocked to buy and commit their lives to those masks? That company is run by a genius. Or Hong Kongers are stupid. But that last claim is impossible because Hong Kongers boast the third highest IQ in the world, right?
Now, I won’t hammer you with the uselessness of wearing face masks in the general public. I won’t explain the danger in which this PR stunt put the people lining up. I won’t explain the danger in which those people lining up put themselves by committing their health to un-certified surgical masks. I won’t even bother explain to you why hoarding surgical masks puts in danger the very people who do need to wear a surgical mask to prevent the spread of the virus; i.e. infected people and health care workers.
No, I won’t. First off, because I did it twice, already. Second, because countless reliable websites (keyword: reliable) which explain all of this are available on the internet. And third, because it seems -from what I see on the streets of Hong Kong- that no one, neither in Hong Kong nor anywhere else, cares about reliable information on how to behave in case of an epidemic.
The question I’m asking myself, however, is the following. Where the fuck do people get their information from? And do they actually care about the reliability of the information they read or hear? Or do they act on sheer instinct, amplified by group effect, and triggered by rumors?
Case in point: the rumored toilet paper shortage that compelled tens of thousands of Hong Kongers to line up -and increase the risk of infection- in front of supermarkets during the 2019-nCoV epidemic. People received the “news” via WhatsApp and rampaged entire isles of supermarkets. As a result, a -temporary- shortage was created out of thin air. By the very people who feared a shortage in the first place (self-fulfilling prophecy, much?). The following day, though, those products were again available. And rampaged again. Oh and, Hong Kong being Hong Kong, the price of those items went through the roof in the process, obviously.
As any sane person who rationally analysed the situation saw it coming -whilst the rest of Hong Kong was blindly panic buying items of all sorts at premium prices- food traders reassured the people that food supplies remained stable. “But as long as people keep panic buying rice, there will be no chance for us to restock properly,” Kenneth Chan Kin-nin, chairman of the Rice Merchants’ Association of Hong Kong, said. Logic. But do
sheep Hong Kongers understand basic logic?
Outside Hong Kong, rumors surrounding 2019-nCoV also gained traction. In South-East Asia, for instance, the rumor spread that saltwater gargling, boiled garlic, or cow dung could prevent you from getting infected with the virus. Again, what the fuck? Are we still in the Middle Ages? Who still believes that kind of crap? A lot of people, unfortunately.
Now, I know, not all countries have reached the same level of development. Not everyone has equal access to education. Not even in first world countries. But everyone has access to the internet through their smartphone. And, consequently, to re-li-a-ble information. Why people rely on social media rather than trustworthy sources of information in life-or-death situations is beyond me.
Yet, this wonderful piece of technology -the internet- is most often used to connect to social media rather than to look up information that might actually save you in case of an epidemic. As a matter of fact, according to analytics services website SimilarWeb, out of the five most visited websites globally -as of 1 January 2020- three are social media platforms: YouTube (2); Facebook (3); Twitter (5). The remaining two websites in the top five are Google (1) and Baidu (4); both of which are search engines.
Just for your information, the website of the National Institute of Health (NIH; USA) ranked 123rd most visited website in the world, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC; USA) ranked 1,291st, and the National Health Service (NHS; UK) ranked 1,350th. The World Health Organization’s website (WHO; Global) didn’t even rank in the top 2,000 (2,071st)! Priorities…
And if there is a website people should closely monitor in times of epidemics, it is that of WHO. Along with rumors, misinformation about 2019-nCoV is spreading like wildfire on social media. And WHO has taken upon itself to bust the rumors, myths, and misinformation that may reveal harmful on its page Myth Busters.
Geared more specifically toward Singaporeans, the Ministry of Health of Singapore (MOH) published a page on its website on which it addresses all the rumors surrounding 2019-nCoV in the city state. The page is updated every time a new rumor is reported in Singapore.
However, there is one rumor that is firmly ingrained around the world: the efficiency of the surgical mask in the general public. The 10,000 people who lined up in Kowloon Bay are a perfect example of just how strongly the masses believe in the protection said masks offer. But the passing of Chinese hero Dr. Li Wenliang, the ophthalmologist who warned the world about 2019-nCoV and ended up censored by the Chinese authorities, on 7 February 2020, shows how little protection the surgical mask offers.
As all doctors in China -as well as in Hong Kong- Li Wenliang wore a surgical mask every day. And, as a doctor, he knew how to properly wear a face mask. Yet, that didn’t prevent him from contracting the disease. For the simple fact that… the surgical cannot block the virus responsible for 2019-nCoV, which “(d)iameter varied from about 60 to 140 nm“ One nm (nanometer) equalling 0,001µm (micrometer), this means that the virus measures 0.060 to 0.140µm. Keep this number in mind.
In February 2010, Erin Sanchez submitted a thesis on the Filtration Efficiency of Surgical Masks. And, put in relation with the virus responsible for 2019-nCoV, the results of the study are alarming. “The analysis revealed that the filtration efficiency for 0.5 um (ed. micrometer) particles ranged from 3% to 43% for the unsealed masks and 42% to 51% for the sealed (ed. masks physically taped onto the face of the test subject)”.
Look at the numbers carefully. Unsealed surgical masks -as worn by the general public- only filter 3% to 43% of particles measuring 0.5µm. But the virus responsible for 2019-nCoV measures 0.060 to 0.140µm. That is, 4 to 10 times smaller than the particles tested in Erin Sanchez’s experiment!
Granted, viruses cannot survive outside of a host particle. But considering the in-efficiency of the surgical mask to consistently filter 0.5µm particles, it is safe to say that it will be useless to filter a 0.140µm virus… even if hosted by a particle that is twice or even trice its size.
But, hey, if Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp tell you surgical masks will keep you safe, why would you bother researching and listening to what scientists and scientific experiments tell us about the surgical mask, right? After all, social media are not known for spreading false information, are they? Oh… wait…
Hong Kongers have been traumatized by the SARS-outbreak of 2002-2003. Or so I was told. Yet, they don’t seem to have learnt the lessons from the past epidemic. In 2020, they (and the rest of the world) still prefer listening to rumors than doing actual research on the new epidemic and how to prevent infections.
They still prefer increasing the chances of getting infected -by gathering in large groups- to acquire a (non-certified) surgical mask that doesn’t filter the virus of 2019-nCoV anyway, and create an -unnecessary- shortage in masks that would reveal dramatic if hospitals and health care workers -who are in daily contact with viruses of all sorts- can’t find masks anymore. Yes, this is Hong Kong I’m talking about; the city/country that boasts the third highest average IQ in the world.
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/health-environment/article/3049082/coronavirus-10000-queue-masks-hong-kong. Last retrieved on 6 February 2020.
 https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/society/article/3049351/hong-kong-food-traders-assure-people-stable-supply-desperate. Last retrieved on 6 February 2020.
 https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/health-environment/article/3049261/garlic-cant-keep-coronavirus-bay-neither-will. Last retrieved on 6 February 2020.
 http://theindependent.sg/outrageous-wuhan-virus-cures-include-cow-dung-garlic-saltwater-gargles-green-bean-soup/. Last retrieved on 6 February 2020.
 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2001017. Last retrieved on 7 February 2020.
 https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2759&context=etd, p.vi. Last retrieved on 7 February 2020.