How Face Masks Became So Divisive

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There’s been an ongoing dilemma about face masks since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

In cultures like Australia’s where we’re not that used to masks, whether to wear one or not has become one of the more divisive aspects of the pandemic, and it’s caused debate spanning both science and politics.

I want to find out why there has been this sort of reaction to masks in Australia.

But first, what’s going on with masks?

Well back in June the World Health Organisation announced that wearing a face mask would help protect yourself and others around you from COVID-19.

And because of the state’s second wave of coronavirus, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has now made masks mandatory in Melbourne.

So pretty much from now on, to go out in public people in Melbourne must be wearing a mask or risk being fined $200.

The sudden changes have left a lot of people angry. Not just because they have to pay for the masks themselves, but because there’s just been so much confusion about how effective masks are.

The World Health Organisation’s announcement came after months of speculation about whether masks actually make any difference to preventing the spread of the virus.

Aussie celebrities have been amongst the many people taking to social media to express their opinions on the whole mask debacle.

This debate is similar to what’s been happening over in America for quite a while now where Americans seem as confused as Australians about all things mask related.

While the rise of anti-maskers there has been huge, celebrities like Jennifer Aniston and Karli Kloss have joined others on social media urging people to #WearADamnMask.

A lot of people are blaming the polarising opinions on President Donald Trump, who still hasn’t announced mandatory mask wearing, even after 144,000 people have died because of coronavirus.

But why is there divisiveness happening here in Australia instead of relief at finally having government guidelines that are clear?

Professor Charles Abraham (University of Melbourne): “I think there are a number of reasons. Wearing a mask is uncomfortable, it’s not something that you’d do for fun, so that’s one reason – it’s a level of discomfort but it’s quite a low one. The other thing about masks is that we can’t read people’s faces as well when they have masks on. So if you’re surrounded by lots of people wearing masks it’s slightly more difficult to make judgements by, ‘oh that person looks friendly, that person maybe doesn’t’ those judgements are harder.”

That’s Charles Abraham, Professor of Psychology at The University of Melbourne and Director of the Melbourne Centre for Behaviour Change.

Charles believes this is why some Aussies are reluctant to wear masks, even after the new medical advice out of Melbourne.

Essentially, we are changing our culture. We’re moving away from a culture of friendliness and openness while out in public, to a culture where we’re more closed off and wary of others.

But since wearing a mask is no longer a choice in Melbourne, Charles hopes that people there will start feeling a bit more comfortable around each other in this new phase.

CA: “We’ve got to develop new habits. You’ve got to put that mask on as you go out your front door. As we said before, this is a really positive message – that it isn’t an imposition on you, it’s you taking care of yourself and particularly others. You don’t want to be going out and accidentally spreading the virus to other people, that could really harm them.”

The Takeaway

So perhaps the rest of Australia should start thinking about wearing masks in public as the new normal, since they could easily be made mandatory everywhere.

And more importantly, to start seeing it as a good thing. Because really, if masks can help protect us from spreading the virus, isn’t it worth it?