Face masks: why the world is still arguing about them, 20 months after the start of the pandemic

Transmission peaks have faced blockages; international travel was severely restricted; and although domestic constraints have often proved controversial, hygiene measures such as social distancing, hand washing and mask wearing have been strongly encouraged – if not legally mandatory.

Yet debates still rage in several countries over their use, and some regions recently removed the requirement for people to wear them in crowded spaces.

“The masks remain the symbol of a divided society – between those who think we have restricted too much and those who think that we have not intervened enough during the pandemic”, Simon Williams, lecturer on Covid-19 behaviors at Swansea University in Wales, told CNN.

With the prospect of another winter pandemic looming, some countries are grappling with calls to revert to mask use. But they face resistance from people tired of endless contradictory messages – and many experts fear that in countries where the rules have been relaxed, the reimposition of mandates could be complicated.

Different approaches

The early days of the pandemic saw early hesitation over the use of face masks by governments and the World Health Organization (WHO), amid fears that a mask rush would leave frontline workers without sufficient protective equipment. But as the world learned more about Covid-19, their use became common in mid-2020.

“Masks help filter aerosols generated in our airways when we breathe or speak. (They) are more effective at filtering larger aerosol particles and less effective at filtering smaller ones,” said Bryan Bzdek, researcher at the Aerosol Research Center at the University of Bristol, summarizing the scientific mechanism behind the use of the mask.

“This is conceptually similar to driving a car when there are a lot of insects – the bigger ones tend to hit the windshield while the smaller ones follow the airflow around the car,” did he declare.

Outside of parts of Southeast Asia, where mask-wearing had become common after the SARS epidemic in 2002, few countries used to cover their faces in public. But the unique shock of the Covid-19 epidemic has resulted in rapid behavior change, experts say.

“Behavior specialists and policymakers have been quite surprised how quickly people have embraced masks once they are needed,” WIlliams said.

“The biggest development in the masks’ perceptions of the pandemic has been the general acceptance that they protect others as much, if not more, than the wearer,” he added.

“The exact benefits in terms of cases averted and lives saved are still being investigated – but even marginal gains are worth it when masks are relatively inexpensive interventions, in that they are much easier on us. than things like distancing or seclusion. ”

But now, despite the growing body of scientific research on face masks, countries are heading in various directions.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has made masks a key pillar in his response to Covid-19. His administration followed the advice of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on mask recommendations, imposing them on federal property and encouraging schools to use them.

But he faced obstacles from several states. More recently, Biden’s Department of Education found itself embroiled in a battle with the Florida Department of Education after deciding to cut funding to some school districts to force people to wear masks.

In Europe, mask warrants have become the norm even as several countries have seen their Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations under control, with stricter rules for unvaccinated people frequenting indoor spaces like restaurants and bars. .

Spain, for example, requires masks indoors when social distancing is not possible. France recently lifted its obligation to wear a mask outdoors, but the rule remains in place for confined spaces. And Italians are still required to cover their faces indoors or on public transport (the mandate for the outer mask is now lifted).

However, England, despite a stubborn increase in the number of cases since the summer, no longer requires people to cover their faces anywhere – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving it to a “personal choice”.

The psychology behind the masks

Experts say that most people wear masks largely depends on the rules in place.

“The biggest influence on all of the reasons for wearing a face mask seems to be the law,” said Ivo Vlaev, professor of behavioral science at the University of Warwick. He cited data from Imperial College London’s Covid Behavior Tracker, the largest ongoing study into the societal impact of Covid-19 around the world.

A metro train in Italy, where wearing a mask is compulsory in most interior spaces.

“(Mandating) behavior helps send the signal that it’s important,” Williams added. “Wearing a mask is a behavior that is really influenced by social norms – or peer pressure – and so in a setting where masks are no longer mandatory, it could cause others not to wear theirs. ”

“This is well illustrated by the inflection point in the UK when mandatory mask wear was announced,” Vlaev said, noting a rapid recovery in mask use last year and an equally sudden drop since July, when the rule was removed. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly one in five Britons no longer say they wear face coverings outside their home, up from just 4% in mid-June while still in office.

But when the public is guided by the law, unclear messages can be costly.

Williams said he was initially “surprised” by how quickly people have stopped wearing masks in the UK in recent months. “It’s really due to the mixed messages that a lot of people think the government has sent,” he added.

“Many countries in Europe have a more consistent mask policy, which makes it a habit over time.”

British lawmakers wore masks in the House of Commons last week, after the healthy secretary urged them to

The UK government now faces a test as it tries to encourage mask wearing again, without the backing of a law, as cases rise as winter approaches.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid recently urged people to wear masks in certain situations to avoid future restrictions. But he was forced to admit it was “fair” for the public to question why he is now being encouraged to do so, after lawmakers had appeared in the House of Commons hours earlier without a face covering.

Experts doubt that such guidelines will carry as much weight as during the previous stages of the pandemic.

“As the number of mask wearers declines, the ability of authorities to enforce mask warrants declines,” said Robert Dingwall, professor of social science at Nottingham Trent University.

It is this reflection that has led most of the EU countries to impose longer and sometimes stricter mask measures.

“People will have learned a new behavior – wearing masks – before they ‘unlearn’ it and then have to relearn it,” Williams said. “It could be difficult – many people may have gotten used to living without masks.”


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