• James Wamsley

My experience with masks

Growing up in the U.S., I never saw people wearing masks, at least not for health purposes. Masks were for Halloween or for bank robbers on television. People didn’t really cover up their faces much. Of course, there were surgeons’ masks and gas masks, but

again, these were marginal examples and were never something people wore regularly for any extended period of time. To be honest, covering up your face and wearing a mask was always something that was fun. You become harder to identify and feel a bit of liberation in obscuring your identity to those around you. It wasn’t until college that I saw masks as a normal practice for people. Usually, it was Asian students who were wearing masks, and to be honest, it was initially a mystery as to why they were wearing them. I didn’t really question it much and thought it was an idiosyncratic behavior or something that might be normal for that person wherever they might be from. This is to say that for the first 20 or so years of my life, mask-wearing was not a regular practice and if anything, people thought it was odd and wasn’t very attractive as a practice. What we were learning was that you shouldn’t cough into your hand. Instead, cough into your elbow, like Dracula! The logic was that when you cough, disease particles escape from your mouth and if you cough on your hand, well, you’re bound to touch things here or there and spread your sickness to others. Plus, it’s kind of gross to have germy hands. Wearing a mask seemed like your cough would go into the mask and blow back all over your face. Also gross. This was my understanding. However, later in life, I moved to China and it was there that I encountered plenty of practices and behaviors which were foreign to me but were a normal part of everyday life there. This included people bringing parasols out on sunny days, strangers getting a little closer than I was used to, and yes, masks. This is where I first thought to question the practice, given my understanding that your germs would just be blowing back on your own face. Also, you’re already sick. It was a little too late to be putting on a mask, wasn’t it? This is where I learned that the reason people put on masks was to prevent the spread of germs to others. This immediately made sense to me. However, this also made me wonder, which practice was actually more effective? Wearing a mask or coughing into your elbow? My internet sleuthing led me to the conclusion that in fact, masks were less effective and were actually problematic because they gave people a sense of security that their germs were no longer spreading and were confined to the mask, which was not really the case. Also, people tend not to put them on properly or tend to use the wrong kind of mask, which also really didn’t help. To me, coughing into your elbow meant that you knew where your germs were and you would be very careful about touching surfaces with them. I was content with this but I didn’t want to challenge a quite regular practice in a country where I was a guest. Things changed with the new coronavirus. In fact, the CDC initially discouraged the usage of masks for the reasons that I had found before and because masks should be used by those who are in direct contact with people who are already sick, so as not to get infected themselves. This made sense. “Don’t wear masks, they give you a false sense of security and they’re not for you.” However, weeks into the pandemic we learned that individuals can be asymptomatic carriers of the disease. Wearing a mask is an effective way to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. I was wrong before and now I understand that. What I want to say with all of this is that masks are new to us. In our minds, we had been doing just fine for decades without them. And with change comes resistance. Many people have taken to mask wearing as per the CDC’s new guidelines. We recognize that it’s a smart thing to do and many people have had a lot of fun creating and designing their own masks. But the people who are resistant to change are…the people who are resistant to change. To them, this new practice represents more than a preventative measure to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. It’s just something new that they aren’t used to, and so they are defiant, regardless of it’s effectiveness or the fact that the CDC now recommends we wear them. I wrote this to try to help explain to those of you out there who wonder why Americans refuse to wear masks. It’s not all of us and it’s a new practice to many of us. I hope that this can help you understand just one person’s perspective.




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