Can you imagine life without masks? It didn’t take long before wearing a surgical face mask in crowded public places began to feel like the new normal. They feel as essential as our phone, wallet and keys. Most are happy to make this mild sacrifice for the good of public health, but there are a few dissenters – the so-called anti-maskers – who have attempted to politicise an issue which needn’t and shouldn’t be politicised. The bottom line is this: wearing a mask can contribute to controlling the spread of the virus and ultimately saves lives.
The new normal
Why Do Some People Refuse to Wear a Mask?
Researching the anti-mask movement, I struggled to find a cohesive and unambiguous justification for their actions. The reasons these people cite for not wearing a mask are scattered, varied and often very vague:
- ‘Personal freedom’ – civil liberties are important but the right to not wear a mask constitutes freedom from what? From wearing a piece of fabric over your mouth and nose to avoid spreading your saliva droplets which could contain a virus which has killed nearly a million people worldwide? It’s the same as wearing a seatbelt or washing your hands – a small measure to protect yourself and others
- ‘It’s all about political control’ – one anti-masker in Florida shouted that the face mask mandate represents ‘political dogma that they’re trying to shove down our throats.’ How and why having to wear a mask is an instrument of political control is unclear
- ‘Medical reasons’ – a small number of people do have a legitimate medical reason not to wear one (see below on who is exempt) but some take advantage of this as an easy excuse
- ‘It’s all a hoax’ – some argue that the virus is not even real; it’s all a hoax, somehow part of a complex scheme to affect the results of elections
However, beneath the vague reasons that people state for not wearing a mask are some more deep-seated psychological explanations – which the anti-maskers themselves probably aren’t aware of. Firstly, when someone can’t handle the depth and seriousness of a situation, the tendency to deny kicks in automatically as a coping mechanism. Not wearing a mask is also a symbol of rebellion against everything that has been forced upon people for the past few months. Selfishness also comes into it; some individuals feel above the law and don’t think the rules apply to them. It doesn’t affect them personally if they don’t wear a mask so they choose not to.
The anti-maskers are by far the most prolific in the U.S., but Brits are catching on and the movement is gaining traction in the UK too. In a way it is hard to blame the American mask flouters given the confusing messages President Trump himself is sending mixed messages regarding the issue of masks. In April, he said at a press conference, “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it — wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.” Yet he has also described the act of wearing a mask as ‘patriotic’ and since July has worn one on a number of public occasions. There is no federal mandate to wear one, just local laws.
Trump has shown ambiguity regarding masks
How can wearing a mask help control the virus?
Some are still in doubt about the benefit of wearing a mask in controlling COVID-19, even though the justification behind masks is backed by evidence. The Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in America recently told Congress that masks might even be a better guarantee than a vaccine against the virus. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also advises wearing a mask in public at all times.
According to current evidence, the COVID-19 virus is primarily transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces. Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of the virus when widely used by people in public settings.
Wearing a mask saves lives
Wearing a surgical or cloth mask can help reduce the transmission of respiratory droplets:
- An experiment using high-speed video found that hundreds of droplets were generated when someone uttered a simple phrase – and nearly all these droplets were blocked when the mouth was covered by a damp washcloth
- A study of people with influenza or the common cold found that wearing a surgical mask significantly reduced the number of these respiratory viruses emitted in droplets
Wearing a mask can also help prevent transmission through contact and self-contamination:
- Wearing a mask reduces the likelihood of people touching their face, biting their nails or picking their nose; if you touch a surface with traces of the virus on it and then touch your face, you will contaminate yourself
- The risk of self-contamination is one of the main reasons why the CDC and the WHO don’t advise that you wear gloves in public places; it is not wrong to do so per se, but in order for it to be effective you need to avoid touching anything else like your phone or your face. It is counterproductive to wear gloves yet rummage through your purse or text on your phone
There is also real-world, epidemiological evidence which demonstrates the potential benefits of masks in helping to ultimately save lives:
- One study looked at coronavirus deaths across 198 countries and found that those with cultural norms or government policies favouring mask-wearing had lower death rates
- There are also individual scenarios which serve as evidence for the beneficial impacting of wearing a mask: in one case a man flew from China to Toronto and subsequently tested positive for COVID-19; he wore a mask on the flight, and all 25 people who were closest to him tested negative. In another case, two hair stylists in Missouri had close contact with 140 clients while sick with COVID-19; everyone wore a mask and none of the clients caught the virus
Who is exempt from wearing a mask?
In the UK, there are some places where you must wear a face covering by law. However, some people are not be able to wear a face covering and are therefore exempt. This includes the following:
- Children under the age of 11
- People who cannot put on, wear or remove a face covering because of a physical or mental illness or impairment, or disability
- Employees of indoor settings and transport workers, although employers may consider their use where appropriate
- Police officers and other emergency workers, because it may interfere with their ability to serve the public
- People for whom putting on, wearing or removing a face covering would cause them severe distress
- If you are speaking to or providing assistance to someone who relies on lip reading, clear sound or facial expressions to communicate