Continued from part 3.
It’s too late to change people’s attitudes about masking for the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yes, some individuals will change their mind. But most people’s minds have been made up, and won’t change over the next few months.
So why bother persuading people to take a more positive outlook towards masks? Because this won’t be the last airborne pandemic. Now is the time to do the slow, slow work of changing public sentiments about masking so that the next pandemic will disable and kill fewer people.
The way masking has spread during this pandemic, alas, has seared negative connotations into people’s minds. Yes, the political polarization is bad, and it presses people who otherwise would wear masks to go maskless because they don’t want to ‘make a political statement.’ But it goes deeper than that. We’ve impressed upon ourselves that masks = deadly pandemic which causes mass upheaval.
Even if people understand that the purpose of masking is to protect people from pathogens, that emotional link will make them recoil from masks. Emotion overwhelms thought when we make decisions.
I have a confession to make: these negative feelings are why I refuse to wear surgical masks.
Yes, I have well-reasoned arguments for preferring both cloth masks and N95 respirators over surgical masks. But I constructed those arguments to justify my feelings. If my feelings were reversed, if I liked only surgical masks and felt disgust for cloth masks and N95 respirators, I’d come up with well-reasoned arguments for that stance.
My gut feelings about surgical masks is that they represent serious medical trouble. After all, they are masks for surgeons, and people don’t lay on surgeon’s tables when they’re thriving.
When I first moved to Taiwan and saw people on the street wearing surgical masks, those masks disturbed me. Over time, I came to understand why Taiwanese people wear surgical masks in public, and chilled out about the practice. I even bought my first cloth mask (long before the covid-19 pandemic) in Taiwan—but notice that I bought a cloth mask, not surgical mask. The cloth masks come in bright colors and look pretty. The black cloth masks are sleek. The surgical masks… eeek.
Recognizing my irrational repulsion from surgical masks, I better understand why some people find all masks offputting.
What can we do?
First, it helps to name the bad feelings. Naming bad feelings dissipates their power. Even now, as I state outright that I avoid surgical masks like the plague because of my emotional associations, something inside me has loosened. I still prefer cloth masks & N95 respirators (depending on what tradeoff between comfort and protection I want at the time), but if surgical masks are much better for some occasion, for example, if surgical masks are the only masks available in the short-term, or if I’m at a venue which bans cloth masks and requires everyone to wear surgical masks, I feel more at peace with donning a surgical mask.
We have to talk about the feelings which underlie our choice to wear a mask or go maskless. The more openly we talk about it, the more we can control our feelings, rather than letting our feelings control us.
The other thing we can do is create positive associations with masks which have little to do with pathogens.
How? I can think of only one method… and that’s spreading East Asian pop culture.
It’s already happening. The Masked Singer started in South Korea, and it’s spreading around the world.
I’m an example. East Asian cultures improved my feelings about masking.
Right now, Kpop is making a huge international splash. Kpop may already be a vector for pro-mask sentiments. Maybe we should help Kpop do that by spreading viral music videos which show people in masks. (Yeah, I noticed I used the words ‘vector’ and ‘viral’.)
It doesn’t have to be Kpop, it can be whatever works. Maybe five years from now Thai pop will overtake Kpop in international popularity (I’m surprised by how popular Thai pop is among American teenagers today, which suggests it’s an upward trend). Thai culture is also mask-favorable. Maybe snazzy Thai music videos which present masking positively will shift the global mindset. Or maybe we’ll see a wave of new pop music girl groups around the globe: LAX48, PAR48, RIO48, LOS48, and SYD48. (If you didn’t catch the reference, check out this music video compilation which is missing SNH48).
It doesn’t have to be music videos, it can be TV dramas (have you heard of an amazingly popular South Korean drama lately? something to do with a marine animal?), movies, comic books, video games, anything. As long as people willingly choose for fun, not because it’s a compulsory lesson, it can work. Something to forge positive associations with masking.
The biggest take away is this: talk about how you feel about masks. Good, bad, all discussion helps.