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Masks: Not just a COVID-19 accessory

Protecting public health goes beyond the pandemic, and It’s time the U.S. embraced mask culture

A woman wears a black face mask. // Photo by Olgierd 

By Kaleigh Carroll

Keys? Check.

Phone? Check.

Mask? Check.

The events of this year have touched nearly every aspect of our lives, including our mental checklists. Masks, which one seemed cumbersome and dystopian, have become just another item to grab before leaving the house.

The recent Pfizer vaccine trials have bolstered hopes that the countdown to the end of mask-wearing requirements can begin, but health officials have made it clear that any vaccine will not be a magic cure.

It seems masks won’t be going away anytime soon, and that’s not a bad thing.

Even when the pandemic is just a distant memory we tell our grandchildren, the U.S. should be embracing mask-culture.

Other countries around the world, mainly in Asia, had adopted a mask-wearing culture long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

In these areas, when others wear masks to block out pollution, prevent the spread of disease or make a fashion statement, people don’t think twice about it.

The widespread acceptance of face masks in some Asian countries is often attributed to their collectivist culture, which puts the needs of the community above the needs of individuals.

In the U.S., it’s the polar opposite.

Individualism, which prioritizes the self before the group, has been a staple of American culture since the country’s founding and has seeped into the great face mask debate.

One survey from the Brookings Institute found that 40% of Americans opposed wearing face masks because they felt it was their right not to.

These cultural views, combined with the initially mixed messaging from government agencies and even hostility toward masks from the White House, have warped the public perception of face masks.

Instead of using this moment to invest in conspiracy theories or harass essential workers for enforcing mask mandates, we should look at the long-term benefits of embracing mask-culture.

It’s no secret that masks prevent the spread of disease both in and outside of the pandemic.

Imagine a flu season where sick people donned masks when they went to the store or rode the bus instead of “toughing it out” for the sake of projecting a healthy facade.

A study from the U.S. National Library of Medicine found when patients wore surgical masks it reduced the ability of flu aerosol particles to spread through the air.

Though the partisan divide over face masks is still prevalent, there is hope that Americans are willing to embrace mask-culture.

A survey conducted in May by HuffPost found that 69% of the 1,000 respondents viewed wearing a face mask in public as a sign of respect, and 62% saw it as an important part of protecting public health.

Face masks also create a safer environment for immunocompromised people, who often have to limit their contact with the public out of fear of contracting everyday illnesses that may be deadly to them.

Mask-culture is about more than staying healthy. It’s about respect and empathy, and it’s about time the U.S. learned that.

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