Near the beginning of the lockdown I was talking to a friend, a retired medical man who likes to keep up with the latest research. Our conversation turned to the subject of wearing face masks. In his considered opinion they were – for the general public at least – wholly pointless. He cited various papers which showed that, unless the masks in question were of a professional grade, were changed every half hour or so, and were untouched by the wearer during usage they did very little to stop the airborne transmission of the Covid-19 virus. As I had no inclination towards wearing a mask this was all music to my ears; I decided I would not wear a mask myself and I confess that I indulged in patronising and snide remarks about those who did.
If you suspect that I was wrapped in a warm blanket of self-satisfaction about this personal position you’d be right; it was, in its way, a perfect example of that most insidious of distorting influences “confirmation bias”. I didn’t want to wear a mask and therefore I was delighted to hear my expert (in my view) friend’s advice that there was no scientific reason for me to do so. Furthermore, it bolstered my belief that those people who donned them had been gulled by irrational and alarmist publicity. All very satisfying.
It was John Henry Newman who remarked in his work The Idea of a University that “….it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain” – Robin Aitken
But slowly I had a change of heart. This was nothing to do with the science which remains unchanged (if contradictory); there are still plenty of authoritative studies out there which de-bunk the idea of masks, just as there are others which claim they are an effective measure to stop the spread of the virus. What changed my mind was observing the effect I was having on those around me. In shops particularly. Sometimes I would see masked individuals swerving ostentatiously out of my way; once I was scolded by an old lady as I selected my vegetables. My initial reaction to these fearful behaviours was one of amused irritation (“don’t they know the science says their masks are useless?”) but on reflection I realised I was merely being boorish.
It was John Henry Newman who remarked in his work The Idea of a University that “….it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain”. Leave aside the fact that, as an injunction, this sets the bar almost impossibly high (and certainly not one I, nor anyone I know, has consistently attained) it is nevertheless a useful counsel of perfection. And when applied to the wearing of face masks it is clear what a “gentleman” should do; he (or she – for this is a universal code which applies to both sexes) should wear a mask when required to do so because it puts other people at their ease.
My fellow shoppers, and the people manning the checkout tills, and my fellow worshippers at my local church, are all deserving of the same consideration. I might not think masks are worthwhile, and they are certainly irksome to some degree (they make your glasses steam up for one thing), but if by your unmasked presence you are striking fear and alarm into the heart of the person next to you, then your duty is obvious. Put it on and make the best of it; which is what I now do.
All of this has made me look askance at some of the posturing surrounding the face-mask debate. There are some prominent commentators who have pitched their libertarian tents on this contested ground. It has become, for some people, a question of principle and I confess I find their position faintly ridiculous. In recent weeks there have been demonstrations, some of them quite large, in cities around the world against the use of face masks. At one demonstration in London, some participants accused the government of “mind-control” by obligating their use in shops and other places where people are in close proximity. How can one explain such an exaggerated response to something which I have come to understand as merely a question of good manners?
It doesn’t matter if you have convinced yourself that masks are pointless – many other people feel they are an essential prophylactic against a deadly disease. – Robin Aitken
The explanation lies in two things; a misguided libertarianism and the variable public understanding of risk. Libertarianism is a broad church – there are, for example, well-defined, but opposing, positions of left-libertarians and right-libertarians – but what all libertarians share is a deep suspicion of governmental authority. So it is that, for some people, whatever the government proposes, if it infringes on personal behaviour, must be resisted. There is a long tradition of this: there were people who got into a rage about the imposition of seat-belts in cars and there are others who have dedicated themselves to a life-long crusade against the fluoridation of water supplies. No matter that both these measures have proven to be effective (seat-belts have saved thousands of lives and fluoridation is an effective measure against dental caries), there are still people who argue vehemently against them.
As for the public appreciation of risk it has been shown, over and again, that many people have a completely skewed idea of the risk that certain behaviours entail. My personal belief is that the risks of Covid-19 have been somewhat exaggerated. But in my circle of friends and acquaintances there is a huge variation in the response to the perceived risk. Some friends have hardly left the safety of their own homes for the entire period of lockdown whilst others have been more relaxed. But I would wager that all of them think their response has been the rational one.
It is this variation that must be borne in mind when deciding what our response should be to mask-wearing. It doesn’t matter if you have convinced yourself that masks are pointless – many other people feel they are an essential prophylactic against a deadly disease. You cannot argue these people out of their conviction – nor should you try. The fact that they are fearful is the whole of the matter: it is your public duty not to cause them to be afraid and to put them at their ease. Face-masks have now merely become a question of good manners. And that is all that need be said on the question.
Robin Aitken was a BBC reporter for 25 years and is now a freelance writer and journalist; his latest book The Noble Liar (Biteback) has recently appeared in new edition.
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