As lockdowns are being lifted, various governments have mandated its citizens to wear masks in public. This has become a necessary ‘inconvenience’ that most of us have had to learn to live with. However, we usually see that one person at the grocery store or on the street wearing a mask incorrectly or, worse, not wearing a mask at all.
While masks are personally beneficial in protecting you from the virus, they also serve a greater purpose of being mutually beneficial for the community. Public health professionals have been encouraging this simple preventive measure for months, yet they are being met by varying groups of resistance. The protests against wearing face masks in the US and the rise of ‘Anti Face Mask Crusaders’ in India, all seem to have one thing in common - they choose to ignore government-issued mandates regardless of the consequence. In response to this, various governing bodies have issues counteractive measures of fines, penalties and even jail time, in an effort to motivate people to wear masks. The question is, do these measures work in getting people to do what they’re told? To get to to the answer, we must first understand what motivates people to follow and well, even refuse government instructions.
Behavioural Scientists and Economists may have the answer
Various studies have conducted research on how to encourage a behaviour within a large group of people and the answer is the Carrots and Sticks Approach. Basically, a person is rewarded 5$ for doing the desired task and is penalised 5$ for ignoring to do the same task. What does this have to do with encouraging people to wear masks? Well, the answer lies in the motivation and the incentive of the people. We are essentially motivated to wear masks because the incentive is two fold- personal as well as community protection.
However, not everyone looks at it the same way. Compliance, or the readiness to adopt a certain task, depends on the individual’s perceived risks and benefits of that task. In simple words, for me, the benefit of wearing a mask to prevent transmitting the virus is a valid reason to comply and not bear the risk of not wearing it and possibly contracting the virus. For individuals who don't understand this simple logic, government intervention becomes necessary.
Governments issue mandates in an effort to motivate people to wear masks
When there is a large number of people who refuse to adhere to basic community health guidelines, the government has to enforce compliance among them. They do this in 3 ways - Increasing monitoring, imposing fines or engaging in both. This has been the trend with reports of various people being fined for not wearing a mask in public, or increased security in public places to ensure mask-wearing.
India’s Union Ministry of Health Advisory has advised people on asking them to cover their nose and mouth “with a handmade reusable face cover” whenever they are in public. If not followed, various states have come up with penalties in an effort to get people to follow these rules. In Mumbai, public was given stern warning to wear a mask in public at all times to avoid facing arrest under Indian Penal Code Section 188.
However, these efforts by the government have been met with backlash
While imposing fines and increasing monitoring, may have some success, they could also backfire if these fines are seen as ‘unfair’. It also seems to have no effect on people who think that the choice to wear or not to wear a mask, lies in their own hands. Such people have politicised the simple act of wearing a mask, disguising it as their ‘freedom’ or ‘right’ to choose not to. This makes me wonder, is there anything that could make these ‘anti-maskers’ wear a mask?
So what else could work in getting people to wear masks?
Health Experts theorise that if people would not mask up for courtesy and even fines and penalties do not work, educating the public is the final trick left in the book. Research shows that people will be more likely to wear masks if their own perceived risk of catching the virus is high i.e when they know that they are at danger and the only way to avoid this danger is to comply with health guidelines being posted by authorities.
This does not mean that the government should do away with fines and penalties, educating the public should just be an added measure to ensure the guidelines are being followed. Educating the public of the danger of not wearing a mask has however not being the case so far. If influential public figures like Donald Trump himself doesn’t endorse wearing a mask, it is likely that thousands, if not millions of people will follow in his misguided footsteps. This is why it is of paramount importance for health officials to set the record straight on how a simple act like wearing a mask could not save one but many lives.
Irrespective of the reason, individuals should be wearing a mask when around people
It is now a well-known fact that a mask is helpful in reducing the spread of Covid 19. In fact, a recent study showed that 45,000 deaths could be avoided by November simply if 95% people chose to wear masks in public. The Director of the CDC also issued statements saying that if everyone in America complied and wore masks, the virus could be ‘under control’ in just 4-5 weeks!
At the end of the day, whether fines and penalties are imposed or not, we know better than to go out in public without some sort of protection. If a simple act as wearing a mask, reduces the risk of me catching the virus and possibly even transmitting it further, you will definitely find me choosing to wear a mask.