The Enigma and Metaphor of Face Masks

     Even as a child during Halloween “Trick or Treating,” I felt uncomfortable wearing a mask on my face. That was admittedly a long time ago.

     Fast forward to the current coronavirus pandemic, when I and many others now wear this designated apparel regularly, especially when crowds are milling about or in stores or areas which demand them. Like many of you, I wear a face mask when it is mandated, or when people are congregating and “social distances” are being ignored or contravened.

     The reality is that wearing a mask is not by choice or particularly stylish, and can even be unsettling. I will add “uncomfortable” to this litany, as masks can at times make wearers feel stuffy and warm, eye glasses often fog up, and speech can be muffled and unclear.

    But astounding numbers of hold-outs adamantly refuse to wear a face mask, offering all kinds of reasons: 

    Many people avoid masks because they just don’t believe scientific experts or data that any real protection is offered (“They have no idea what they’re talking about!”). Others don’t believe there is a real pandemic, that this is a “hoax” used to upset citizens and governments (“It’s all made up!”).

    Others eschew masks because of discomfort (It makes me feel gross!”) or laziness (“I can’t be bothered!”), a sense of invulnerability (“It can’t/won’t happen to me!”), or because of personal vanity (“It hides my beauty,” or “It makes me look ugly!”) 

    Still others harbor angry and defiant feelings at those making and enforcing the rules. These ultra-libertarians feel their individual rights and freedoms are being infringed upon (“Nobody can tell me what to do!” “It’s a free country!”).  

    There are also those who feel that the entire pandemic is part of a conspiracy concocted by a nefarious group of actors who mean to do us harm. They “know” that the coronavirus is real (not a hoax), but they feel that the virus was purposefully and malevolently “planted.”

    Finally, there are those who are selfish and narcissistic. and when informed that masks can be of help to others, feel or say “I don’t care!” 

    Most of us eventually get used to wearing protective face masks and we resign ourselves to the minor inconveniences. We are more likely to wear them if they are strongly recommended by experts in virology, infectious diseases and epidemiology to protect our personal health and safety during the pandemic, and even more so if we are legally compelled to do.

    One problem might have been conflicting information: We heard different opinions on the utility and necessity of wearing face masks (and every other related newly-mandated behavioral rule). To be fair, researchers and clinicians are still learning new information about this wily and sinister foe, Covid-19, so that up-to-date advice changes. 

     However, the latest evidence is clear: We now know that wearing a face mask (covering the nose and mouth) is particularly effective at slowing the spread of air-borne droplets containing the active virus from us (you and me) to other people. While masks are not foolproof, there is now no doubt that significant protection to others does indeed occur (which is why surgeons use masks during surgical operations).

    We also now know that a mask protects the wearer from infected individuals or non-symptomatic carriers. A recent study in the Lancet Medical Journal corroborated the importance of face masks: The virus transmission rate in both directions was shown to be much less with a with a face mask, much greater than without a face mask.

    The World Health Organization (WHO) – despite President Trump’s criticism – and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), are both strongly recommending face masks in “hot” (active) coronavirus infection areas. Scientists and clinicians are urging that we should all be wearing masks when we are among other people, especially at close interpersonal distances. 

    I am a physician (though not an epidemiologist or infectious disease specialist) and I am convinced by these latest findings and recommendations.

    Even if masks are not a “100% guaranteed” defense against coronavirus (like an effective vaccine, which we all desire), here are other important reasons to convince you:

Raising Consciousness (Mindfulness, Self):

     Wearing a mask raises one’s consciousness that we are indeed in the midst of a dangerous pandemic. It reminds us that we’re doing what is recommended by the experts, including other important behaviors, like not touching our faces, washing our hands frequently, disinfecting surfaces, avoiding crowds, and certainly keeping at safe interpersonal social distances. 

Civility and Caring (Altruism, Others):

     This singular act of wearing a face mask is a metaphor for caring and civility, an inherently noble gesture: Mask wearers protect their families, friends and neighbors, shopkeepers and many others. By wearing a face mask during this pandemic, people are performing a personal and social “Act of Human Kindness.” 

    This is an acknowledgement that we humans are all in this together. It is a generous, benevolent act of communality, a visible symbol of considerateness, respect and empathy.        


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