Unmasking The Face Mask Conundrum

Since COVID-19 has spread across the globe, the guidance around face mask use has evolved. In July the CDC in the United States reviewed its latest science and affirmed that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight to reduce the spread of the virus, particularly when used universally within communities.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that it will be mandatory from Monday, August 31, for members of the public to wear face coverings on public transport when in Alert Level 2 and above. Previously, face mask use on public transport in these settings was simply advised.

“The whole world has continued to learn, and New Zealand is one of those countries where [when] we've seen new evidence, we've always been willing to act on that, and we are,” commented Ardern.

The science is certainly compelling, so why then are so many Kiwis hesitant to wear a face covering in public? Auckland has been advised to wear masks when in public under Alert Level 3, but it seems that only approximately a third of people are actually doing it.

On Stuff’s Tick Tick podcast it was suggested by Dr Elspeth Tilley that changing Kiwi’s attitudes towards mask-wearing could be like the 1970s campaign to get people to use seatbelts in cars. Dr Tilley, an associate professor of English at Massey University who has written extensively about ethics, and has served as a member of the tertiary ethics committee, noted that bringing about change in culture, even when there was a clear public benefit, was not easy.

“Change is always difficult for people,” Dr Tilley told the podcast.

“Seatbelt adoption didn't happen overnight either. There's a big impetus here for everybody to change, but there will still be people for whom they have a very sincerely held personal belief that this doesn't align with their values.”

An article on psypost.org took it a step further by sharing that new research from Brazil found that people who are unconcerned with adhering to measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 tend to display higher levels of traits associated with antisocial personality disorder, also known as sociopathy.

Here in New Zealand I think it comes down to social awkwardness and the idea of face masks being so unfamiliar. In countries throughout Asia it is common to see people using face masks when they are sick or during cold and flu season without any stigma attached.

Some Kiwi’s have said they feel as though they have been looked at as being diseased or contaminated by others when they wear a mask, they don’t want to look as though they have the coronavirus. This stigmatism has to change, for a start there is nothing to be ashamed of if you do test positive for COVID, and the message surrounding face masks should not be one of fear, but one of kindness and coming together.

The Kiwi hospitality industry is a fantastic family spread far and wide throughout Aotearoa, perhaps it is the hospo whanau that should set the example for the rest of the team and be vigilant with wearing face coverings in the work place so that it does start to feel familiar.

Plus, a face mask is a great way to get some extra branding out there - a walking billboard, so get creative and embrace the new normal because it is likely to stay this way for a while.