Our research team decided to distribute masks directly to people’s homes and in crowded public places like mosques and markets. We provided information on why wearing a mask was important and involved religious and community leaders in this post. Finally, we asked the residents of each village to politely ask anyone not wearing a mask to put one on and to give masks to those in need.
Although not everyone agreed to mask themselves, mask wearing increased by around 30 percentage points among adults who were encouraged to do so. This change resulted in an overall 9% reduction in Covid-19. In communities where we have promoted the use of surgical masks, Covid-19 cases have fallen by 11%.
Our study did not measure the effect of wearing the universal mask but the effect of a voluntary mask program. This resulted in an increase of four in 10 people using a mask versus one in 10 masking – a big increase in use, but still far from perfect. If everyone wore masks, the reductions in Covid-19 cases would most likely have been significantly greater.
People over 50 have benefited the most, especially in the communities where we have distributed surgical masks. In these communities, Covid-19 cases have decreased by 23% for people aged 50 to 60 and by 35% for people over 60. Our study does not suggest that alone older people must wear masks, but instead this widespread wearing of community masks reduces the risk of Covid-19, especially for the elderly.
Let’s put this in concrete terms. Our best estimate is that every 600 people who wear surgical masks in public spaces prevent an average of one death per year given recent death rates in the United States. Think of a church with 600 members. If a congregation found out that it could save a member’s life, would everyone agree to wear surgical masks in indoor public spaces for the next year?