The Nordic nations are continuing to hold out against face masks even as most of the world either orders or recommends their use.
Masks are a rare sight in supermarkets, on buses and along the streets in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, Helsinki and Reykjavik, and most who do wear them are tourists.
According to a recent survey by YouGov, only five to 10 per cent of respondents in the Nordic countries said they used a mask in public settings, a figure that has remained stable since the start of the crisis in March.
At the same time, the corresponding figures have risen to between 70 and 80 per cent for most of the other 20 countries polled, including India and the United States.
This graph from YouGov shows the percentage of people in each country who say they are wearing a face mask in public places. The countries along the bottom are all Scandinavian nations, while the graph also shows how mask usage has dramatically increased in the UK
People walk along a street in Stockholm on Monday with nobody wearing masks, as continues to be normal in the Scandinavian nations
Asked on Tuesday what might change his mind on recommending the use of face masks, Sweden’s chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell said he was still waiting for ‘some form of proof that they are effective’.
‘I have the impression that if the government doesn’t say clearly ‘we advise you to wear a mask’, nobody will,’ 21-year-old French student Camille Fornaroli said, adding she was shocked to see how rare masks were in Stockholm.
Birgitta Wedel, a 63-year-old pensioner, said she would have preferred if Sweden’s authorities recommended masks, at least on public transport.
But she added that she would keep going without one unless there was a shift in official policy.
‘If they don’t… I will not wear it because nobody else does,’ Wedel said.
Marten Sporrong, a 50-year-old businessman, also said he would follow government recommendations: ‘If they tell us we don’t need masks, we won’t wear them’.
Sweden has received global attention for its softer approach to curbing the spread of the virus which, coupled with a relatively higher death toll, has led to the region’s largest country being shunned by its neighbours.
But when it comes to masks, the Nordic nations look staunchly united.
‘Except for Sweden, there are very few cases in those countries,’ said KK Cheng, an epidemiologist at the University of Birmingham.
‘So I don’t blame them for not doing it, as long as they have reasonable social distancing and contact tracing is done properly,’ Cheng added.
SWEDEN: 80,100 cases, 5,739 deaths
DENMARK: 13,725 cases, 614 deaths
FINLAND: 7,423 cases, 329 deaths
NORWAY: 9,172 cases, 255 deaths
ICELAND: 1,872 cases, 10 deaths
Cheng rejected also rejected Tegnell’s dismissal of face masks, saying: ‘I think it’s wrong, it’s irresponsible and it’s stubborn. If he’s wrong, it costs life. If I’m wrong, what harm does it do?’
Britain is among the countries which has changed its stance on masks, having initially played down their effectiveness before making them compulsory in shops and on public transport.
After the World Health Organization (WHO) changed its guidance, Danish health officials began cautiously recommending using masks in early July – such as when going to the hospital for a test or when you are coming back from a risk area.
‘Face covers don’t make sense in the current situation, where we have a consistently very low level of infection,’ Soren Brostrom, director of the Danish Health Authority, told broadcaster DR on Tuesday.
‘But could it make sense in the long-term, when we bump into each other on public transport and other situations? That is of course something that we will evaluate,’ Brostrom added.
Similarly, in Norway and Finland, although there is ‘no opposition in principle,’ masks are deemed an unnecessary precaution while the spread is low.
‘It may be something that will have to be considered in the near future if the contamination increases,’ Are Stuwitz Berg, a doctor with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, told AFP.
Mika Salminen, director of Health Security at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, told broadcaster YLE the issue would likely resurface ‘when people begin to return from holidays to a greater extent, and of course if the epidemic situation changes radically.’