For many Americans, the initial reactions to seeing images on the news (or even occasionally in an American airport) of seemingly young and healthy people – usually from Asian countries – wearing protective masks in public places was mostly negative. They included:
What the heck, could things really be that bad?”
“What a pain that must be. What a lousy and fearful way to go through life.”
“I mean, I’d understand if it was an elderly person in a wheelchair, but that woman looks like she could run a marathon.”
“Do you suppose that guy is contagious?”
“Where do they even get those things?”
Such reactions weren’t wholly unfounded. There’s no getting around the fact that wearing a mask is a challenge and not much fun – especially at first. They can be hot and uncomfortable. They muffle your voice and make communication more difficult. They make it vastly more difficult to read facial expressions.
They can also seem, for lack of a better term, “nerdy.”
Notwithstanding all the heroic TV doctors who’ve donned masks down through the decades, there’s no denying that, for many of us, the idea of mask-wearing in public initially connoted a sense of fearful pessimism; of going through life timidly trying to avoid things.
Add to this the original spate of mixed messages that public health officials delivered about mask-wearing at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic (not to mention the aggressively stupid and irresponsible behavior of the President of the United States on the subject) and it’s little surprise that so many Americans remain resistant to the idea.
Here, however, is the hard and simple truth that is increasingly making itself evident across the globe: The widespread wearing of masks during the pandemic will save huge numbers of lives. Like not smoking, wearing seat belts and bicycle helmets and other safety steps that Americans long resisted, the science is simply undeniable.
As Virginia Mercury reporter Kate Masters reported last week in a story republished by NC Policy Watch , a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University found huge benefits from mask use:
An initial examination of all 198 countries found that the per-capita mortality rate in places that weren’t recommending masks tended to increase each week by 54.3 percent. In countries recommending masks, the rate increased by just 8%….
‘They are the single most important variable that you can control,’ [report author, Dr. Christopher] Leffler said in a phone interview. ‘We have a graph that makes it very clear that mortality is hundreds of times lower if you use masks.’”
Other studies – like one recently released by researchers at UNC Chapel Hill  – offer similarly encouraging findings.
Are masks perfect or foolproof? Of course not.
As noted, they can be a pain to wear. For many, there is a tendency to fiddle with masks and even to pull them down in order to touch one’s face or speak. It takes practice and patience to get the hang of remembering the mask and wearing it properly. And, of course, they do not guarantee that the virus will not spread.
Some critics have also seized on the image of Gov. Roy Cooper briefly pulling down his mask while attending a Raleigh demonstration spurred by the George Floyd killing as evidence of supposed hypocrisy on his part in urging people to cover up.
Still others have promoted crazy conspiracy theories or promoted unfounded claims that mask wearing is somehow detrimental to one’s health.
Like those who used to allege that seat belts would prevent easy escape from a vehicle in the case of an accident or that bicycle helmets would limit visibility, these naysayers claim that masks will somehow retain dangerous chemicals that people might encounter, inhibit people’s ability to develop robust immune systems or worsen breathing problems for people with respiratory ailments.
And others, sadly, continue to promote the dangerous falsehood that the threat posed by the virus is overblown and no worse than a seasonal flu.
Happily, despite all the destructive and pigheaded resistance to masks, one senses that the facts are, slowly but surely, making an impact.
In a radio discussion broadcast last Friday , a spokesperson for the conservative John Locke Foundation neatly summarized the utility and importance of masks by describing their usefulness in “flattening the curve,” protecting vulnerable seniors and allowing the economy to restart more rapidly.
Meanwhile, continuing spikes in infections, the growing ease of availability of masks, their widespread use by sports stars and other media personalities and the growing number of public health directives from state and local leaders seem sure to push public behavior in a positive direction.
The bottom line: As with so many other aspects of the pandemic, all of us yearn for the day when face masks will become a weird and fast-fading memory and we can return to “normal life.” For now, however, masks are one of the cheapest, easiest and most effective tools to hasten that day’s arrival.
Please get one and wear it when you’re in public.