In recent days, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been seen in public for the first time wearing masks.
It’s a dramatic turnaround – Mr. Trump previously made fun of other people for wearing masks, and suggested that some might wear such personal protective equipment to show their disapproval of him, even after the Centers for disease control have recommended face covers.
Meanwhile, the British government was initially reluctant to advise the general public to wear face covers, as other European countries have done.
He introduced rules requiring people to wear face covers on public transport in June, and now says that people in England must wear face covers in shops or face a fine.
Many authorities worldwide – including the World Health Organization (WHO) – initially suggested that masks were not effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. However, they now recommend face covers in interior spaces, and many governments have even made them mandatory.
What has changed – and why?
The number of governments recommending to cover their faces has increased significantly in the past six months.
As of mid-March, about 10 countries have policies recommending face covers – now more than 130 countries and 20 states are doing so, says Masks4All, a group of activist researchers who advocate the use of homemade masks during the pandemic. .
Some studies also suggest that people’s attitudes have changed.
“Countries without a history of wearing face masks and blankets among the general public quickly adopted a use as in Italy (83.4%), the United States (65.8%) and Spain (63.8% ), “Says a Royal Society report. – one of the main scientific organizations in the United Kingdom.
The changes appear to be due in part to a better understanding of the spread of Covid-19.
Initially, the WHO said the masks should only be worn by medical workers or people with symptoms such as coughing and sneezing.
However, in recent months there has been growing evidence that many people with the virus do not have symptoms – but can still be contagious – and masks can prevent them from spreading it to others. . WHO changed its guidelines in June.
Meanwhile, there is more awareness that the risk of transmission is higher in poorly ventilated indoor spaces – and evidence suggests that the virus could be spread by tiny airborne particles.
This means that if everyone wears a face covering, it will “protect against the most common mode of transmission – droplets – and to some extent perhaps aerosol droplets,” says Kim Lavoie, chair of medicine behavioral at the University of Quebec in the department of psychology of Montreal.
Professor Lavoie adds that “there has been more research” on face covers, including observational studies which indicate that “countries with high mask wear appear to have lower infection rates”.
In addition, a number of scientists now claim that there is “evidence” that the masks can protect the wearer and those around them.
It is also increasingly recognized that the pandemic could last a long time – and, if so, face covers could be seen as something necessary to help people adapt and reduce risk when reopening of businesses and schools.
“Covid is not going anywhere – we will probably have a vaccine in years, not months,” says Professor Lavoie, who led iCARES, an international study of behaviors associated with Covid-19. “All these principles must therefore be integrated and adapted to the new normal life. “
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Why do countries have such different attitudes?
Even though government policies have changed – there is a big gap in people’s willingness to wear masks.
About 83% of people in Italy and 59% in the United States say they would always wear a face mask outside their home – but only 19% of people in the United Kingdom say the same, according to Covid- 19 Behavior Tracker – a project led by the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London with the research company YouGov.
“The United States, the United Kingdom and Canada have been relatively slow in speeding up the wearing of masks compared, for example, to Spain, France and Italy,” says Sarah P Jones, researcher on health behaviors at Imperial College London and one of the creators of the tracker.
She says that wearing a mask can vary depending on how vulnerable people feel about an illness, whether they believe the costs outweigh the benefits, and whether the masks are available.
In countries where the use of masks is increasing sharply, people may have experienced “a rapid increase in the perception of severity and vulnerability”, “rapid changes in policy making the use of masks mandatory”, and the feeling that “I see a lot of other people doing it, so wearing a mask shouldn’t be a problem”.
Professor Lavoie agreed that places that “were hit quickly and hard”, like Italy, may have adopted the mask more easily.
Finally, people in countries that experienced the Sars pandemic in 2003 – or other respiratory epidemics – were more willing to start wearing masks.
“In East Asia, there is a lot of recent memory of respiratory pandemics and a cultural awareness that masks are a good idea,” said Jeremy Howard, researcher at the University of San Francisco and one of the founders of Masks4All.
In contrast, “there is simply no recent history of respiratory pandemics in the West” and many Western and international institutions have “almost completely ignored scientists in East Asia,” he argues.
Many countries have been particularly cautious about recommending face masks due to a lack of clinical trials proving their effectiveness, says the Royal Society report.
However, “there have been no clinical trials of cough in the elbow, social distancing and quarantine, but these measures are considered effective and have been widely adopted,” he adds.
Why do some people still hesitate to wear masks?
A majority of countries now recommend or require face covers in certain situations.
However, most people seem even more willing to use a hand sanitizer, social distance or to wash their hands regularly, than wearing face masks, according to data from the Covid-19 Behavior Tracker and iCARES.
People think that hand washing and social distancing are things they can easily control, says Professor Lavoie.
On the other hand, “wearing the mask is a little more complex – you have to find and buy a mask, put it on and get rid of it in some way, and they are uncomfortable to wear.” “
And changing guidelines from WHO and many governments could have caused difficulties.
Many experts say governments were reluctant to recommend face covers because they feared a shortage of personal protective equipment for medical workers – but by suggesting they weren’t effective in preventing transmissions, they now seem inconsistent .
“Mixed messages, which are not transparent about the data or how the government makes certain political decisions, can erode confidence” and make it more difficult to convince people to wear face covers now, says Professor Lavoie.
Howard says many western governments have been slow to take action on the masks until they are severely affected by the pandemic.
Nevertheless, he thinks that Boris Johnson and Donald Trump can now have a positive impact by wearing masks in public.
“The models are absolutely real,” he says, and since Mr. Trump wore a mask, “many people who were previously anti-masks now say it was a patriotic thing for him. ”
This is particularly important now that the United States is experiencing a new wave of infections, he adds.