Muddled Messaging on Masks

By Kayla Dowling | November 30, 2020

Illustration by Bella Villanueva

At Boven’t IJ, a popular shopping center in Amsterdam Noord, it appears to be a regular afternoon. However, the presence of COVID -19 strikes us at the sight of many – and many not – wearing face masks.  

The clear dissensus on face masks is visible just over a month after the Dutch government switched its official position to “strongly advise” people to wear face masks in public. While they have been required on public transportation since June 1, 2020, a strict requirement for wearing masks in public areas has not been mandated by the Dutch government. Currently,  a mask-wearing mandate cannot be legally enforced because of legislative limitations.

In response to this confusion, the Dutch government declared on its website that: “Following a parliamentary debate… there is broad support for issuing clear national advice on the wearing of face masks in indoor public spaces.” This includes stores, restaurants, theatres and stations.

That being said, why did the “strong” recommendation to wear face masks come so late? Tighter mask requirements in crowded public spaces (indoors and outdoors) have been the norm in other European countries, including Dutch neighbors Germany, France and Belgium. Though many others have not implemented nationwide mask-wearing mandates, they do require masks to be worn in certain public spaces. Conflicting stances on scientific evidence underlie the tension in the Netherlands as the government’s initial response to the pandemic went against the grain of the general approach. 

 

Pictured here is the Kalverstraat, one of the busiest shopping streets in Amsterdam. The photo is taken on November 18 2020, a time during which many people protect themselves from the COVID-19 pandemic with face masks. Jasper Akkermans / The Amsterdammer

The Dutch apprehension initially derives from advice given by the director of the RIVM (National Institute for Public Health and Environment), Jaap van Dissel. Making his stance clear at the onset of the pandemic, van Dissel has maintained that face masks have an exceptionally small effect” in preventing the spread of COVID-19. He emphasizes that maintaining at least a 1.5 meter distance is much more effective than face masks alone. His stance on masks is claimed to stem from the fear that the widespread “use of masks would dilute the basic rules” by providing a false sense of security from COVID-19.

 

“use of masks would dilute the basic rules” – Jaap van Dissel

The government’s fickle stance has sparked a fiery response from Van Dissel, who claims that any advice by the Dutch government to wear face masks stems from political motivation and not from evidence or the RIVM.

The Outbreak Management Team (OMT) formed by the RIVM, in charge of the national efforts against COVID-19, took this stance a few steps further. As detailed in an official document dated July 28, 2020, the OMT states that, “undisputed evidence that non-medical face masks protect against the spread of COVID-19 is missing.”

Of the two polar takes on mask-wearing recommendations, the RIVM’s stance has gradually aligned itself with that of international public health experts, who continue to strongly recommend the use of face masks in addition to other measures. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that, “Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.” The WHO lists wearing face masks as a supplement to the already well-established measures against COVID-19, which the RIVM now seems to agree with.

 

“Masks should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives; the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection against COVID-19.” – World Health Organisation

While there is dissonance in the government, many members of the Dutch population have complied with the recommendation to wear face masks in public. Frederique, 23, was one of the customers at the Boven’t IJ shopping center who did not mind following the regulations. Frederique expressed that she started wearing a face mask following  the recommendation of the government, “I think I started [wearing a mask] around September, something like that. Before I actually didn’t really because it wasn’t recommended and I wasn’t really seeing people wearing it a lot.” She adds that she wears a face mask when she’s in a store or going grocery shopping but does not wear one when she is outside. 

Meanwhile, others like Yannis, 33, are only willing to wear a mask when it’s mandatory. When asked if he wears a face mask often, he said, “not so much in public” and believes that “it is not that healthy.” However, his job in the hospitality sector requires him to wear one for at least 8 hours a day which, according to him, is “very annoying”. 

Regardless of these signs of discomfort, the Dutch government appears to be moving ahead with the integration of mask-wearing into its measures against COVID-19. From December 1, 2020 a requirement mandating the wearing of face masks in indoor public spaces has come into effect. Failure to comply with this measure will result in a 95 euro fine.

This trajectory is one that is much needed. While the number of daily coronavirus cases continues to decrease in the aftermath of a surge, the pandemic is nowhere near its end. Experts are particularly anxious about how much compliance will be observed during the holiday season. The previous upheaval of cases in the Netherlands featured a peak of 11,059 new cases in a day. Whether or not this shocked the government into attempting a new approach, it is clear that they hope this new requirement will provide an additional layer of protection in these volatile times.

 

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