“If I wore a mask to my son’s football training, which started again last week, the organisers might think I was unable to cope,’” said a mum in Manchester, as we discussed the return of social activities.

As lock-down restrictions start to be lifted in Britain and communities resume the sharing of public spaces, the choice to wear a face mask has become something of a personal statement and even a political one.

In the UK, the practice of wearing masks is still widely rebuked, despite evidence that universal mask-wearing could be one of the most important tools for tackling the spread of covid-19.

The UK isn’t alone in sociological controversy around the wearing of masks, even with the epidemiological value of masks gathering eminence.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 19: A couple sit on the Central Line Tube wearing protective face masks while reading a newspaper on March 19, 2020 in London, England. Transport for London announced the closure of up to 40 stations as officials advised against non-essential travel. Bus and London Overground service will also be reduced. (Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

In the US, the White House has made it compulsory for all staff to wear face masks, yet Donald Trump refuses to wear one.

Trump’s refusal to wear a mask, like many others, is not confined to scepticism over the science and by medical advice; it’s about culture, history and personal liberty.

Step outside in the likes of Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Seoul without a face mask, and you’ll be met with disapproving looks. Mask wearing in Asia has been a cultural norm long before the covid-19 pandemic broke out. In the spirit of solidarity, Asia maintains the assumption that anyone can be a carrier of a virus, even healthy people, so face masks should be worn to protect each other.

The Sars virus outbreak in 2003, drove the importance of wearing face masks home in China. Having experienced a deadly contagion in recent times, could be a key reason why Asia’s proactive societal conduct regarding face masks differs so significantly from the West’s.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that everyone should wear a mask. Yet only 12 states in the US enforce mandatory mask wearing.

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - MAY 11: Customers wearing protective masks sit apart in observance of social distancing measures inside a movie theater as the Czech government lifted more restrictions allowing cinemas to re-open on May 11, 2020, in Prague, Czech Republic. The Czech government has begun further easing the restrictive measures to slow down the spread of the pandemic COVID-19 disease during the lockdown. (Photo by Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images)
Photo by Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images

On May 14, 100 of the world’s top academics issued an open letter to all US governors asking that “officials require cloth masks to be worn in all public places, such as stores, transportation systems, and public buildings.”

In early June, the World Health Organisation (WHO), changed its advice on face masks, saying they should be worn in public where social distancing isn’t possible. The global body said new evidence showed masks could provide “a barrier for potentially infectious droplets.”

Some 94 countries around the world recommend wearing a mask, including the UK. In early May, in another confusing, bumbling and contradictory piece of covid-19 advice announced by the government, Boris Johnson dodged the issue of face masks, and failed to issue any guidance on the mass use of mask wearing in public.

Research led by scientists Britain’s Cambridge and Greenwich Universities, shows that even homemade masks can dramatically reduce transmission rates if enough people wear them in public. The study confirms that population-wide face mask wearing could push covid-19 transmission down to controllable levels for national epidemics and could prevent further waves of the disease when combined with lockdowns.

“Our analyses support the immediate and universal adoption of face masks by the public,” said Richard Stutt, who co-led the study at Cambridge.

Despite the evidence and mounding expert advice that supports the practice of mask wearing to help combat the spread of the disease, it took until mid-June for the UK government to make wearing a face covering mandatory on public transport in England. The rule was enforced in light of changed advice on face masks to stop the spread of coronavirus.

In Europe, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are the only countries to have made coronavirus mask-wearing mandatory. In response to the government’s decree to make the wearing of masks compulsory for everyone in an effort to combat the pandemic, Czech citizens mobilised a national effort to make and distribute home-made masks.

Neighbouring Slovakia has imposed similar legislation.

A waitress wearing a face mask serves clients at the terrace of a cafe in Bratislava on May 6, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. - The Slovakian government is easing restrictions because of the low number of new coronavirus infections. Slovakia reopens from May 6, 2020 shops and most service providers, restaurants -- for outdoor seating only -- as well as museums and galleries. (Photo by VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP) (Photo by VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images)
Photo by VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP via Getty Images

It’s no coincidence that both the Czech Republic and Slovakia have fared comparatively well in the fight against covid-19. As of May 5, the Czech Republic – home to 10.7 million people – had 7,700 confirmed coronavirus cases and just 251 covid-19-registered deaths.

According to the EU’s health agency ECDC, Slovakia – with 5.4 million citizens – has the lowest coronavirus death rate in Europe, at a rate of 0.4 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Both the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s mandatory mask wearing has been related to the countries’ low covid-19 figures. As the narrator of a government-sponsored video about the wearing of masks to slow the spread of the virus says:

“The Czech Republic is one of the few in Europe that has significantly slowed down the spread of the virus. The main difference is that everyone who has to leave their house has to wear a mask.”

Unlike these two eastern European countries’ comparatively impressive handling of the pandemic, which saw decisive leadership from the offset, including the Czech’s banning international travel on March 11, and the mandatory wearing of facemasks enforced, the UK’s guidance to mask-wearing has been much more confused, ambiguous and delayed.

The cultural stigma behind wearing masks also seems to be holding the UK back in its refusal to embrace what experts are now citing as an effective strategy in curbing in the health crisis, with some Western leaders even describing the practice as “alien.”

This ‘alien’ stigma is not being easily washed off in countries like the UK, where mask wearing advocates are in the minority. As a supporter of mask wearing in Derbyshire said:

“Since the pandemic surfaced, I’ve been wearing a mask every time I go to the supermarket. But I’m definitely in a minority and still get a few odd looks. I’d hope that I would be setting an example that mask wearing is the way forward, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

Related Topics