by Peter Franklin
Friday, 17
July 2020

The collective benefit of mask-wearing

by Peter Franklin
Seattle policemen wearing protective gauze face masks during influenza epidemic of 1918. Credit: Getty

Why make everyone wear masks — even people who are the least likely to spread the disease? (Read Paul Embery’s case against compulsion, here).

Well, when it comes to R, every little bit helps — but, more importantly, the general rule creates a social norm. This makes it much harder for those who are most likely to infect others — “super-spreaders” — not to wear a mask. In other words, collective action has an impact over-and-above the sum of the individual actions.

Mask wearing is far from the only example. I’m old enough to remember when, in 1983, seatbelt wearing became compulsory for drivers in the UK. There were those who bitterly resented the new law — and, later, the requirement for passengers to buckle-up too. But there’s no doubt that compulsion worked — and not just because people feared being caught. It was the creation of a social norm and reinforcement of habit that did the trick.

Ditto the rules against smoking in various indoor environments. In theory, non-smokers had the option to answer “yes” to the most insincere question in the English language — i.e. “do you mind if I smoke?” But, even when asked, they rarely did, because that would have been awkward.

Luckily the law came to the rescue. The ‘right’ of smokers to fill other people’s lungs with carcinogenic gases was curbed. It didn’t require police officers in every train carriage and pub to enforce the law — the shift in cultural dynamics did most of the job.

There was a time when territory was still contested. On public transport, I remember the diehard smokers who insisted on lighting-up — leading to confrontations with other passengers. The former were usually men, the latter usually women. These heroines would be dismissed as “Karens” today, but thank God for them — they won us the battle for clean air.

They did so because they were empowered by the rules. A simple, straightforward ordinance that left no room for doubt was just what was needed. The self-serving excuses — “I’ve almost finished it”, “I’ve got a window open”, “the smoking carriage was full” — were rendered null-and-void.

Our is an individualistic society. In many cases, leaving people free to exercise their personal judgement — and take responsibility for their actions — is a good thing. But, in others, it manifestly isn’t. For instance, some people are better drivers than others — but they still need to observe the same speed limits. A system of self-assessment would allow the worst people to make the stupidest decisions — to the detriment of all.

Sometimes, we just need to put our individuality aside. Indeed, those most capable of exercising their personal judgement have a special duty to set an example and stick to a shared standard. That too is taking responsibility.

Join the discussion

  • August 23, 2020
    Probably because its more infectious. On average, one person with the coronavirus transmits it to 2 to 2.5 others, compared with 0.9 to 2.1 other people for the flu. People with the coronavirus can also pass it onto others for up to 3 days after they show symptoms Further there are other side... Read more

  • August 23, 2020
    Interesting that the article you refer to makes it very clear that the majority of masks have serious leakage concerns and are therefore not so effective at reducing particle spread. Even if all face coverings were 100% effective in preventing the spread of the virus, why is it that we do respond... Read more

  • July 28, 2020
    A number of people have made similar comments. They are fine to wear. Maybe the people making these comments are confusing them with closed system respirators. And what does "really only required" mean? If I require to protect myself against maskless idiots, they come in pretty handy. Read more

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