My friend, N, lives in Bologna, in northern Italy, which was one of the country’s Covid hotspots. During those first terrifying spring months, I watched Italy’s encounter with the virus through N’s Twitter feed: the regimented lockdown; the parks with locked gates; the Italian newspaper stories I couldn’t understand yet knew described hospitals buckling with death.
More recently, Italy has lifted lockdown measures and on Twitter I see N sitting on terraces having dinner, walking around the city, posting videos of children playing with a dog on the street. Life is gradually taking on a familiar shape again, against a backdrop of yellow light and terracotta.
I have also seen the country’s insistence on, and acceptance of, face masks. At the end of May, N tweeted: “Masks ubiquitous. Handed out free by council or available everywhere in boxes, like tissues”. If you want to order a drink at a bar, you need a mask. If you want to use the loos in a restaurant, you need a mask, if you want to go to the shops or get a haircut, you need a mask. In Italy, masks are obligatory inside, and strongly encouraged outside. In Spain and France wearing masks in public are mandatory. And as all these European countries have come out of lockdown, infection rates have stayed down.
“You might believe you are immune to Covid and the impact of lockdown, but know thousands aren’t. Please, wear a mask.”
When I leave my house in south east London, no one is wearing a mask. This is not an exaggeration. On several occasions, I have been to my local grocery store and butchers and I am the only person wearing a face mask – including the staff. When I took the train to London Bridge after the UK government announced masks are mandatory on public transport, one man, on boarding the train, took off his mask in order to drink a can of beer. A woman put on her mask as the train pulled into the station to avoid the penalty fine for not wearing one.
Of course, masks are not the silver bullet. We need hand washing, social distancing and some sort of functioning track and trace system. But masks play a part. One study published in June, from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, has suggested the “wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission”. Examining epicentres including Italy and New York, the study found that infection rates started to slow only after face masks were mandated – not after lockdowns or stay at home orders took effect.
The masks, however, don’t protect you. They protect others. And perhaps this is why two nations with such individualistic outlooks – the UK and the US – are finding masks such a struggle.
America’s war with the face mask is highly partisan. Joe Biden wears one, Donald Trump doesn’t (even when he’s in a mask-making factory). For some, masks have become yet another thing in America that is good for public safety but refigured as an infringement on civil liberties. For others, masks have become the latest symbol in the conspiracy-infested, anti-science crusade that hates Bill Gates, vaccines, 5G, Dr Facui and Hillary Clinton. Always Hillary Clinton. (Recent reports show certain American states seeing a fresh spike in cases).
But British people don’t have that excuse. They can’t pretend their refusal to wear a mask is based on a political belief. So what is it?
A YouGov poll from this month found that 21% of Brits report wearing masks compared to 85% of Italians, 86% of Spaniards, 79% in France and 64% in Germany. 40% of the Britons who won’t wear a mask said it was because they felt self-conscious. 55% said it was because they were uncomfortable. In the grand scheme of what we’re facing – localised lockdowns and a winter second spike – I’m not sure these reasons are good enough.
We can lay some of the blame on the clear as mud government messaging. Chris Whitty originally rejected mask wearing but now Boris Johnson has said masks would be “useful” to wear. And of course, all roads lead to Barnard Castle. The monumental betrayal of the Dominic Cummings fiasco has meant everybody can now do what the hell they like. Meanwhile, the government has rushed us out of lockdown failing to enforce the idea that precautions are critical.
We’ve had a lack of visible leadership, too. In the pro-mask corners of the US, I’ve seen everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Britney Spears wearing one. Yet that is not the case here. Why on earth, as MPs lined up in Westminster to vote in early June, was no one wearing a mask, if only to send a message? When government content appears on my social media feeds telling me to wash my hands, why aren’t they telling me to wear a mask? How is it possible that I’ve seen Boris Johnson doing a press up but not wearing a face mask?
Ultimately, the biggest challenge of exiting lockdown safely is asking the general public to think of others. The reality of a second spike, in the cold winter months, will be extremely testing for the majority. But it will be absolutely devastating for those who are facing no income and spending long days trying to distract hungry children in homes they can’t afford to heat.
You might believe you are immune to Covid and the impact of lockdown, but know thousands aren’t. Please, wear a mask.
Marisa Bate is a freelance journalist.