Future historians looking back on 2020 will be struck by its dystopian imagery: footballers taking to the pitch wearing masks in Brazil; models strutting down the catwalk in couture coverings in France; a head of government being sworn into office, his face shrouded in a surgical guise, in Slovakia. Wearing masks—hitherto an almost exclusively East Asian practice—has gone viral.
And yet one country, it seems, did not get the memo. In a recent survey of six countries suffering from severe covid-19 outbreaks, Britain was a clear outlier in its reluctance to don masks. The survey, which included three Western countries (America, Britain and Italy) and three Asian ones (China, Japan and South Korea), asked roughly 1,000 individuals from each about how they have adjusted their behaviour as a result of the covid-19 pandemic. It found that, although Britons were about as likely as the other respondents to maintain social distance and wash their hands, they were only about half as likely to wear a mask.
The British government may be partly to blame. When the virus first emerged, government officials downplayed the effectiveness of masks, perhaps in part because such personal protective equipment was in short supply. Although authorities now recommend face coverings, this early ambivalence may have affected public perceptions: almost one in five Britons believe masks are “not effective at all” in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, nearly four times the share of Americans and more than 12 times that of South Koreans (see chart). Only about one in six Britons say they are “extremely effective”.
Such scepticism is also common in America, where the issue has become polarised along partisan lines. Many on the right argue that obliging people to wear masks in public—something that scores of Western countries, including France and Germany, have done—infringes on citizens’ civil liberties. In Oklahoma local officials in a handful of cities were forced to repeal mandatory mask requirements. In Ohio, Mike DeWine, the governor, also reversed an order requiring masks in public, admitting later that “people were not going to accept the government telling them what to do”. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has dismissed mask-wearing as “politically correct”.
Reluctant Britons and Americans may only embrace masks in the face of fines, like those being levied in Singapore or Qatar. But the evidence suggests that wearing them helps to limit the spread of the virus, mainly by protecting others. According to one study masks catch 75% of droplets from the wearer’s mouth; even the humble tea towel manages 60%. Though many Westerners associate masks with infectious people or hypochondriacs, well-mannered Asians routinely wear them to protect others. More data are required, but mask-phobic countries have fared worse in the pandemic than mask-loving ones. When future generations question why, they might find a clue in the photographs.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.