The claim: If face masks protected against coronavirus, Muslim-majority countries in which some women routinely cover their faces would not have high rates of COVID-19
In a photo posted to Facebook July 10, a user listed hundreds of thousands of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in five countries — Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India — alongside a photo of women in niqabs, a full-face covering worn by some Muslims.
“Worn face coverings their entire life… and still reported to have COVID-19,” the post reads. “Think America Think!”
As of July 19, cases had surpassed 263,000 in Pakistan; 273,000 in Iran; 219,000 in Turkey; 250,000 in Saudi Arabia; and 1 million in India, according to Johns Hopkins.
The user did not respond to a request for comment or substantiation from USA TODAY.
Different countries, different customs
Though all five countries listed in the post have significant Muslim populations, not all are majority Muslim.
But like all communities, Muslims are also far from monolithic; beliefs and customs often vary among and even within nations. The assertion that all women in the five countries have worn mask-like facial coverings for “their entire life” is untrue.
A 2014 study from the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research found that in Turkey, for example, just 2% of respondents said a woman should wear a veil that covers the face, including the mouth.
In Saudi Arabia, that figure was much higher, at 63% — still far from a societal consensus, and not mandatory, according to travel guidelines from the U.S. State Department.
Insufficient compliance and research to compare
Even if all women in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India wore burqas or niqabs, there’s no proof that would limit the spread of the coronavirus.
For starters, they only comprise approximately half the population. They also don’t wear head coverings all the time, such as when they're with immediate family members.
A study from researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, University of Cambridge, University College London and others showed a “significant impact” on virus reduction when 80% of the population consistently wore masks, versus “minimal impact” when 50% or fewer wore masks.
In addition, there is no proof that niqabs or burqas are effective as face masks. Specific guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that cloth masks fit “snugly” on the sides of the face. Not all burqas and niqabs are tight-fitting.
In contrast, there is copious scientific evidence that cloth face masks prevent respiratory droplets that could contain COVID-19 from traveling into the air and infecting others.
For example, a study from Texas A&M University in June found that face masks prevented 66,000 infections in New York City in a month, and that not wearing a mask dramatically increases an individual’s likelihood of contracting the virus.
COVID-19 in the Middle East
The five countries listed in the post have all had different trajectories with COVID-19.
Iran, for example, was one of the first countries to see a surge in coronavirus cases in March. Its record for new daily cases — set on March 30 — held throughout the spring, according to BBC News. But a new wave of cases has overtaken Iran in recent weeks, and the nation set a new daily record on June 5.
In an attempt to combat the spike, President Hassan Rouhani mandated mask-wearing on Sunday and said citizens without masks will be denied state services, per Reuters. He also said that infected Iranians have a “religious duty” to notify others rather than keeping it secret.
Saudi Arabia reported a decrease in its daily new case count since early July, according to Reuters on July 14.
Meanwhile, though cases in India have been concentrated in the hubs of Mumbai and Delhi, infections have begun to increase in smaller cities, some of which are re-entering lockdown in response, per Reuters.
Fact check: What's true and what's false about face masks?
Our ruling: False
The claim that all women in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and India wear niqabs or burqas is incorrect. That makes it impossible to use such an assertion to challenge the effectiveness of face masks in preventing COVID-19 — a fact that there is significant evidence to support. Further, the claim that women in majority-Muslim countries wearing face coverings should stop coronavirus discounts the fact they make up only half of the population. We rate this claim as FALSE, based on our research.
Our fact-check sources:
Pew Research Center, "5 facts about religion in Saudi Arabia"
Pew Research Center and the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, "How people in Muslim countries prefer women to dress in public"
U.S. State Department, Bureau of Consular Affairs, "Saudi Arabia"
Study from Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, University of Cambridge, University College London, etc., "Universal Masking is Urgent in the COVID-19 Pandemic"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Considerations for Wearing Cloth Face Coverings"
Study from Texas A&M University in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, "Identifying airborne transmission as the dominant route for the spread of COVID-19"
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Burqas and niqabs are not comparable to face masks