Face Masks — Symbols, security blankets or PPE?

The Hierarchy of Controls shows clearly where PPE should be ranked in any hazardous situation

The Nordic & Baltic region — with 30 million people — are beating COVID19 largely without the use of facemasks. Are masks merely symbols, band-aid solutions for politicians, security blankets for a worried population — or necessary PPE?

Here in Denmark, the COVID19 lockdown is easing up and life is returning to the streets. By all accounts, the country tackled the crisis with a strong, early response. Schools, most shops and cafes/bars/restaurants closed but we could move freely about our cities — as long as no more than ten people were gathered together.

Here’s the curve in Denmark — the blue is where we’re at and the other curves are where we feared we were heading. On the right, unemployment is up, but only about 2% on average and up to 3% in harder hit regions.

In the past four weeks, I’ve counted exactly 34 face masks.

I kept track while walking or cycling through the city, as well as observing the busy intersection, including many buses, outside my windows at home, where I’ve been working. More than half of the observed mask wearers appeared to be non-Danes. My observations are similar to those made by friends and colleagues in other Nordic countries. Physical distancing has been the main approach instead. The same lack of masks is seen in the Nordic and Baltic countries — a region of 30 million people — and yet we pretty effective at beating the virus.

The narrative about wearing masks never came to Denmark during the COVID19 crisis. The authorities have said that the scientific jury is out, so they never pushed them — except for medical professionals, of course. Duh. I find it interesting, however, how the narrative gained purchase in so many other places, even though the scientific community is still debating the topic.

Even the European Centre for Disease Control is vague about the use of what are called “community masks”:

It is not known how much the use of masks in the community can contribute to a decrease in transmission in addition to the other countermeasures.

The use of face masks in the community should be considered only as a complementary measure and not as a replacement for established preventive measures, for example physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, meticulous hand hygiene and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth.

In the past couple of weeks, the mask narrative has really been ramped up. To the point where you feel that people think they can repel meteor strikes. They are now obligatory in many places or required on public transport in a number of countries. In the early stages of the crisis, you’ll recall the whole communication effort about coughing or sneezing into your sleeve and then there was the whole “don’t touch your face” rhetoric. That one disappeared pretty quick. From a behavioural perspective, I guess it’s hard to change a million years of hominin habit.

But hey. What’s up with the recent acceleration of this whole mask wearing thing? I think it’s quite simple. This is a crisis of mammoth proportions and the national reactions to it have varied, as have the levels of lockdown and quarantine. Governments made hard decisions and citizens complied with the restrictions. By and large, the citizenry was — and is — acutely aware of the gravity of the situation.

Authorities seem to be adopting a two-pronged approach. Firstly, they’re passing mask-wearing laws to ensure that they are covering their backs in case the virus starts escalating again. Passing the buck of responsibility, in a way, and sharing that responsibility with the population. It’s that whole political “we can’t be too careful!” approach that I wrote about in this article about COVID and the Culture of Fear.

Invoking the Danish word “symbolpolitik” is relevant here. Symbolic policy seems to be the primary driver behind the new mask-wearing laws that are emerging.

Secondly, in this time of uncertainty, masks seem to be the actual symbol that people somehow need. A visible uniform to show you’re on the same page as the authorities and societal team. A mini security blanket to allay fears — both yours and others.

Yesterday, for example, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) — the trade association for the world’s airlines — announced that they’ll recommend face masks on flights now — and into the future. It’s a corporate move, nothing more. Designed to make people comfortable about flying again and to avoid having to fly with empty middle seats.

Once you have a symbol and a uniform, it’s open season on shaming. On my SoMe channels, I’m reading about examples of this in other countries. The similarities to bicycle helmets. The 10% of the world’s cyclists who wear helmets — the majority being members of a sub-culture with prerequisite uniforms and gear — are disproportionately noisy in their shaming narrative. Luckily, it’s mostly a North American/Australasian thing — judging and shaming strangers is unique to those regions and — luckily — considered unacceptable social behaviour in most of the rest of the world. But shaming is loud and rude — despite the scientific jury remaining undecided on the topic.

There has been fingerpointing and dirty looks throughout the crisis so far. A generation of Facebook experts are intent on schooling your sorry ass, even with a stern look.

I have no opinion on your personal choice to wear one. Do it or don’t. But now that the symbol of the crisis has finally emerged — a wearable uniform visible from a distance — we’ll see a sharp rise in the cases of sanctimonious shaming in the face mask department in the near future.

Just probably not in the Nordic countries.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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