Bridging the Mask Divide

It was one of the more striking patterns I noticed as coronavirus spread around the globe: In some countries, you rarely saw a person walking around outside without a mask covering their faces. In other countries, you rarely someone with it.

Up until recently, the United States belonged in that latter category. But after months of insisting masks weren’t necessary for the general public, the Trump administration reversed course last week and recommended that the public wear cloth masks to slow the spread of the virus.

To some experts, it was an overdue course correction. Masks have long been widely worn throughout East Asia to limit the spread of viruses such as the flu. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea launched an aggressive campaign to regularly get masks out to each of its 51 million inhabitants. More recently, countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have mandated that people wear masks when they go outside.

Some studies have shown that masks may provide the user with a modicum of protection. At a minimum, they’re better than nothing. More importantly, however, masks may be effective in protecting other people if the user is asymptomatic — and according to some estimates, up to 20% of people with coronavirus exhibit mild to no symptoms — because masks have been shown to prevent the spread of droplets that infect others.

But the Trump administration had good reason for not mandating the widespread use of masks: The country was (and still is) woefully short on them, leaving front-line medical workers scrambling for protection. If the public began hoarding surgical masks, it could leave doctors and nurses even more vulnerable to the virus.

But the problem is that this wasn’t always the reasoning given by officials. For example, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that, “You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider.”

Why? Because theoretically you might be more likely to touch your face to adjust the mask. Other officials warned that people with masks may let their guards down and not adhere to other precautionary measures like social distancing.

While those concerns are valid, they also caused confusion among people who would see citizens of other countries openly wearing masks in public (The Atlantic has a great piece on the debate over masks here).

In hindsight, it would’ve been better if the administration had made it clear that the main reason for not recommending masks for the general public was to protect medical workers. It also could’ve easily advised people to consider cloth masks much sooner.

[UPDATE: According to a scoop from Axios, “Top Trump administration officials had been developing a plan to give cloth masks to huge numbers of Americans, but the idea lost traction amid heavy internal skepticism.”

On the one hand, at least that shows they recognized the usefulness of cloth masks. On the other, it also shows that the decision to announce their usefulness could’ve been done sooner. But the opposition to the idea of giving out cloth masks to Americans is understandable given the sheer logistics of such a massive endeavor.]

After all, the recent recommendation has not caused a run on masks. Instead, it’s resulted in people getting pretty creative when it comes to fashioning their do-it-yourself masks. (Who knew sewing would pay off in a pandemic?)

Granted, there has been a lot of confusion about what kind of homemade masks are most effective (The Washington Post has a good breakdown here). There’s no hard proof on what works best and experts still fear that DIY masks may give people a false sense of security.

But those fears overlook the growing consensus that even homemade fabric masks can contribute to slowing the rate of transmission.

There’s obviously still so much we don’t know about coronavirus, and we’ll be studying aspects of the pandemic — including the use of masks — for years to come.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway here is rethinking the cultural taboo in the West associated with wearing masks in public. In East Asia, wearing a mask when you’re sick is considered a courtesy and an admirable trait. It’s also just common sense that if you want to protect yourself from viruses, you cover your face.

Maybe if we ever reach the point where we’re better prepared with a copious supply of surgical masks for the next inevitable health crisis, we can re-examine our aversion to masks and the social stigma attached to wearing them in public. If anything, coronavirus has been a powerful reminder that we need to re-examine our assumptions and complacency when it comes to public health.

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