Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid to Wear a Medical Mask

When a medical mask becomes a culture war symbol, we're not thinking right.

Posted May 14, 2020

It can be scary to wear a medical mask for the first time. It involves admitting to yourself, and to everyone around you, that you are vulnerable. And potentially dangerous.

But right now in America, you are vulnerable and dangerous. You are vulnerable because the coronavirus can travel in the air and easily invade your body with one simple inhale. And you are dangerous because you may be infected right now and just not showing symptoms yet. 

Rather than being afraid to admit this public health concern to yourself and others, show a little courage and don that mask when you are in public. It’s a lot like paying for car insurance or health insurance. It’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it. Not only can a mask save your life and the lives of others around you, but it can also serve as modeling a good example for others to follow.

In the U.S., we like to pretend that we don’t follow others. (But ask yourself how you chose your current favorite pair of shoes. Or ask yourself how you settled on choosing your current favorite hairstyle. Or ask yourself how many people you literally “follow” on Instagram or Twitter.)

We Americans like to see ourselves as exceptional for our freedoms. Freedom to criticize our politicians. Freedom to embrace any belief system we want. Freedom to own handguns and assault rifles. The individualism that these types of freedoms allow for Americans is our hallmark. And, right now, that individualism may be getting in the way of efforts to save our lives.

Some other countries are notably less individualistic than we Americans. For example, people in “collectivist” cultures are more willing to make individual sacrifices for the good of the group than are people in “individualist” cultures (Triandis, 1995). 

In fact, collectivists even have slightly different ways of thinking and perceiving than individualists (Nisbett et al., 2001; Spevack, 2019). A number of Asian countries tend to be more collectivist in their mindset and this makes them better equipped for the style of social cooperation that promotes the community over the individual self. It may even make them better equipped to deal with this COVID-19 pandemic. 

For instance, South Korea has handled this coronavirus outbreak better than many other countries. The culture there does not have a stigma for wearing masks the way many Western cultures do. (It helps that South Korea became accustomed to wearing masks in public after the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003.)

Therefore, when this novel coronavirus broke out several months ago, millions of South Koreans were ready to mask-up when they needed to be in public. (And the government was ready to conduct extensive testing and contact tracing.) As a result, the impact of coronavirus in South Korea has been extremely well controlled, as compared to most other countries. (In fact, dozens of countries are reducing their coronavirus cases at a far better pace than the U.S.)

Why are so many Americans resistant to wearing a medical mask in public? Perhaps American exceptionalism is a big part of the problem. We have been raised on a steady diet of exceptionalism for so long that we tell ourselves lies.

We tell ourselves that our economy is stronger than any other country, even though it’s not true. We tell ourselves that our people are smarter than those of other countries, even though it’s not true. We tell ourselves that our government has a better justice system than any other country, even though it’s not true. We even seem to tell ourselves that our human bodies are somehow stronger than the human bodies of other countries. And the consequences of all those self-deceptions can be seen all over the planet, but they have never really come home to roost here on our soil. We’ve gotten away with telling ourselves lies like that. Until now. 

Your body’s immune system is not somehow stronger than the immune systems of people in all other countries. And truth be told, our American diet of large portions of processed and fast food may have made our American immune systems weaker. Even if you are an American, your body and immune system are not exceptional — at least not in a good way. And telling yourself that lie can get you, your family members, and close friends killed by COVID-19.

Recently, pundits have been wringing their hands over why in the world wearing a mask has become a symbol of a culture war in the U.S. But the answer seems simple. Trump supporters are refusing to wear a mask for one glaringly obvious reason: Trump has never worn one. He is setting a bad example and they are following it.

We have to realize that in the same way that being an American does not make you immune to this coronavirus, being a Trump supporter also does not make you immune to this coronavirus. Without a mask, you can catch it, give it to your family members, and possibly cause one of them to die from it. Without a mask, you can trick the people around you into also not wearing one. You’ll be setting a bad example.

In April, Vice President Mike Pence visited the Mayo Clinic, where donning a mask was required by all visitors. However, he refused to wear one. In the photo, he was the only one not wearing a mask. The result was that the press criticized him for setting a bad example. And he sort of learned his lesson after that. He wore a mask at a ventilator factory two days later.

But then, last week, Pence was about to attend a meeting with food executives who were all sitting several feet apart from one another and wearing masks. Before he arrived, an attendant asked each of the executives to remove their masks. Thereby, when Pence arrived without a mask, he wasn’t the only one without it.

Think about that. For the sake of avoiding another embarrassing photo op, rather than safely wear a mask like others were doing, Pence had these CEOs who were practicing proper coronavirus safety measures to instead risk their health unnecessarily. Moreover, it forced these CEOs to be complicit in modeling yet another bad example

If you have a friend or family member who refuses to wear a mask in public, you could actually turn the tables on this debate with them. Ask them why their own life is no longer important. Ask them why they choose to not do everything in their power to protect the lives of their family members. Since when does a person living in an individualistic country not choose himself or herself, and instead serve as a sacrificial lamb for the good of the economy? Wouldn’t that be un-American?

Please don’t be afraid to wear a mask. Please don’t be a bad example for others. Are you ready to mask-up? Are you ready to protect your life and the lives of your family and friends? Are you ready to be a good example?