A year into the global pandemic, face masks have become a normal, everyday part of our lives in many countries. But one state in Germany has decided the surgical or home-made cloth masks that are most common in the country are no longer sufficient.
Starting on Monday, the state of Bavaria will require that people wear higher-grade FFP2 face masks if they want to go into stores or take public transportation to reduce the risk of infection. There’s just one hitch: These masks are comparably expensive. And the Bavarian state government is apparently preparing a response to demands that financial assistance be provided to low-income earners to make the procurement of FFP2 masks possible.
After Bavarian Governor Markus Söder announced the new mask rule on Tuesday, his decision became a lightning rod for criticism on social media. On Twitter, Sven Lehmann, a member of the Green Party in federal parliament, said that the new rule has to be backed up with a program offering free FFP2 masks – at least for those who otherwise could not afford them.
A number of virologists also criticized Bavaria’s FFP2 requirement, while at the same time emphasizing the advantages presented by the masks. "In principle, I think it's a good idea," Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit of the Bernhard Nocht Institute in Hamburg told the German news agency DPA. But he says it needs to be backed by free access to the medical masks as well as instructions on their correct use. "Without those offerings, I view this critically,” he said.
FFP2 masks offer demonstrably better protection than simple surgical masks, said Gérard Krause of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, but he also made clear: "To me, sufficient and fair availability for everyone is an essential condition for this measure."
To understand how potentially problematic the new rule could become, it is helpful to look at the monthly allowances provided to people who receive Germany’s monthly long-term welfare payments, popularly known as Hartz IV. The allowance includes 17.02 euros a month for health-care expenses. That includes everything from toothpaste to non-prescription medications and hygiene items. In pharmacies, FFP2 masks cost anywhere from 5 to 7 euros each; in drugstores, you can sometimes get them for 2 euros; and they can be a little cheaper on the internet as well. The masks also can’t be washed like other masks, and virologists say they should be thrown out after eight hours of use. People who take public transportation regularly would have to stock up, which could quickly eat into personal budgets - and not just for those who rely on state assistance.
Katja Kipping, chair of the Left Party, says the new Bavarian rule creates a heavy burden for poorer people. "In practice, making FFP2 masks mandatory without providing them for a free, means that poor people will be excluded from public life entirely,” she told the news agency AFP on Wednesday.
In an interview with regional public broadcaster BR, Ulrike Mascher, head of the Bavarian state chapter of the national social welfare organization VdK, called for "quick and unbureaucratic solutions for the procurement of such masks for people with low incomes.”
Beatrix Zurek, head the public health authority in the state capital of Munich, has also spoken out in favor of financial support. "I find it problematic that decisions like this are made without considering the social aspects," Zurek said in an interview with BR. It’s not only welfare recipients who are affected, she said. She noted that work furlough programs introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic have left many people with little disposable income.
The urgency of those calls could increase in the coming days. Shortly after Söder’s announcement of the decision on Tuesday, some on Twitter reported long lines outside Munich pharmacies. Furthermore, online shops promptly raised prices for FFP2 masks or reported that they were temporarily sold out.
It’s still possible for find cheap FFP2 masks online, but they often don’t have the same quality as the ones you get at pharmacies, German virologist Alexander Kekulé told news agency DPA. "Cheap masks often don’t close properly at the nose,” he warned.
Government Moves to Provide Millions of Masks
The state government in Bavaria appears to be taking the criticism to heart. On Wednesday afternoon, DPA reported that Bavaria is preparing plans to provide 2 million masks free of charge to those in need. Given that there are almost 300,000 long-term welfare recipients in Bavaria, that won't be enough in the long run, but it's a start.
There are also other plans for help. Germany’s statutory medical insurance funds, at the initiative of the federal government, have begun sending coupons that allow people in high-risk groups to obtain free FFP2 masks at their local pharmacy. An official in the federal parliament with policy responsibility for medical patients in the country said that 34.1 million residents of Germany should be receiving mail in the coming days with coupons entitling them to 12 FFP2 masks.