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The Masks We Wear (or Don’t)

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD

July 2020

Masks. Of all the things that we have on our menu of things to get upset about during the pandemic area, we choose masks.

Both the World Health Organization and the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention now strongly recommend wearing face coverings in public, in an effort to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic. Early in the pandemic, this was not so. In fact, both organizations initially suggested just the opposite, mainly because of the relatively low prevalence of the disease at the time, and partly because scientists did not yet understand the degree to which the coronavirus could be spread by asymptomatic carriers. Since then, epidemiological data (showing how death rates have been lower in locations that have mandates in place), case reports, and at least one very interesting high-speed video experiment (showing how respiratory droplets are spread when coughing, sneezing, and talking) have all supported the usefulness and wisdom of simply wearing something over your face. In fact, a recent forecast from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that if 95% of the population would wear a mask in public, there would be as many as 33,000 fewer deaths in the United States by October 1.

Okay. I get it. It’s not a cure or an ultimate solution, but it’s an incredibly important step in risk reduction. It should be easy. Spiderman does it all the time and has never, as far as we know, transmitted a virus. However, I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly confess that I haven’t been a big fan (of masks, that is. Not Spiderman). Yes, I’m a healthcare provider who is trained in applied science. Yes, I work in a Family Medicine clinic that (wisely) requires all providers and patients to wear masks in the building. Yes, I have a loving wife who carries enough masks in the glove compartment of her car to stage a Wild West-style bank robbery. In the face (no pun intended) of all the supportive scientific evidence, I’m perplexed at my own resistance to this idea, and I’ve had to look deep inside myself to figure out why I feel this way.

Most people have reasonably good reasons to be mask-aversive. They say masks are uncomfortable, especially in the heat of the summer. They say that masks interfere with breathing, or that being “forced” to wear a mask infringes on their rights (specifically, their constitutional right to infect others. It must be in one of those amendments somewhere). I have to admit that my reasons are less rational, and not as well thought-out:

Whenever I think about wearing a mask in public, a small, repressed, macho “tough guy” who resides deep within my psyche makes an appearance and tells me that to do so would be a sign of “weakness”. This little entity in my head (don’t we all have them?) is surprisingly loud, looks a bit like John Wayne, and insists that to wear a mask is just an admission that I’m cowardly, old, and physically frail (whether or not that’s actually true is irrelevant to this discussion). I also assume that people will think I’m somehow antisocial or want nothing to do with them. In other words, I worry about what people will think of me, when in truth, people probably spend a LOT less time thinking about me than I think they do!

Also, as a psychologist, I have to say that I frankly dislike the fact that masks obscure half of my ability to read peoples’ expressions. I can no longer discern what they’re thinking or feeling…at least from the nose down. Conversely, I dislike being unable to use half of my face to express my emotions to others! I’ve always prided myself on my habit of giving a big smile to everyone I see. Anthropologists have shown that monkeys do the same thing in the wild to express their peaceful intentions and not get beat up when entering a potentially hostile jungle situation (I think you can see the analogy). Hence, with a mask, I feel that I’m being deprived of one of the most simple self-defense tools that nature grants freely to less complex mammals who are much farther down the food chain than I am!

As irrational and convoluted as these thoughts may be, they plagued me until the governor of our great state—in a complete inversion of the aforementioned Wild West culture—made it illegal NOT to wear a mask, as of 5:00 p.m. on June 26th of this year. This changed everything! At last, the playing field is completely level. No longer does anyone need to question or consider the motives of anyone else: now we’re all just trying to obey the law and not get fined! This has enabled me to make a complete transition; from being completely insecure about wearing a mask, to now being completely smug and condescending towards people who are not wearing a mask! This, my friends, is true freedom…the freedom to feel superior to lawbreakers!

I can now look with great respect upon my fellow North Carolinians, all of whom are taking this one simple step (sometimes unwillingly…but who cares?) that will do so much to insure the health of others and bring this pandemic to a more abrupt end.  Seeing everyone wear a mask in public gives me a warm feeling of camaraderie, as if we are, truly, “all in this together.” It’s supported by science, it’s socially unifying, and it’s good for everyone’s health! So please, in the name of humanity, bear with some discomfort and wear a mask whenever you go outside. With any luck, the type of mask you wear will become a fashion statement…and then you’ll have something else to be insecure about!