By Stephanie R.
The year 2020 will go down in the history books as one of the worst years in American history. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost (as of this writing over 400,000 Americans have died), and our country seems more divided than ever. Our country is so polarized that everything has become politicized from who we voted for, to who we think actually won the election, to our own individual handling of the pandemic. One of the most politicized issues has been the use of face masks.
Face masks have been a debated concept since its inception early in the pandemic. From the beginning, former President Trump downplayed the importance of wearing a mask. On April 3, 2020 Trump said that masks were “voluntary” and stated that he probably wasn’t going to do it. In July 2020, he changed his tune slightly by saying, “I think it’s a great thing to wear a mask,” and calling it “patriotic.” In August 2020 he said, “Maybe they’re great, and maybe they’re just good. Maybe they’re not so good.” (ABC News)
This inconsistent messaging created doubt about the effectiveness of masks, and later fueled conspiracies about the pandemic in general. Americans quickly fell into one of two camps: either they agreed with scientists who stressed the importance of masks and their ability to slow the spread of the virus, or the people who listened to Trump and considered masks at best trivial, and at worst a violation of their civil rights.
People from both camps were angry. People who believed scientists and infectious disease experts could not understand why some people didn’t believe the facts: that wearing a mask and maintaining social distance were the best ways to slow the spread. People who didn’t believe in the severity of the virus, were angry that they were being told what to do and how to conduct themselves in public.
This polarization caused a deep divide among Americans. It wasn’t just a polarization between urban and rural areas or blue versus red states. According to a Gallup panel survey that was published on July 13, 2020, women were reported as wearing masks more often than men, Democrats were more likely to wear masks than Republicans, college graduates over non-college graduates, and older Americans 55-years and older were more likely to wear masks than younger Americans. This created a divide not only amongst our fellow Americans, but among our own friends and family members as well.
Let’s discuss the first demographic--women versus men. Women are more likely to wear masks than men even though more men have died of Covid-19 than women. This trend has also been seen in previous epidemics. According to a BBC article posted on July 18, 2020 an academic survey conducted by Valerio Capraro and Helene Barcelo found that among nearly 2,500 people in the U.S. who were surveyed, men were not only less inclined to wear face masks than women. They also considered that donning a mask was “shameful, not cool, and a sign of weakness.” Women in this survey were almost twice as likely as men to wear a mask outside their home. (“BBC News”)
Men are less inclined to wear a face mask because they believe they are relatively unaffected, even though all evidence points to the contrary. Men are also less compliant with another important safety measure: hand washing. A poll found that 65% of women but only 52% of men said that they wash their hands regularly. (Gallup)
Gender has been the prominent factor in the use of masks even across political divides. The Kaiser Family Foundation found that 68% of Republican-supporting women frequently wore a mask outside the home. Only “49% of Republican-supporting men said that they put one on when going out.” (“BBC News”)
The fact that gender plays a pivotal role in the use of masks isn’t a shock to behavioral scientist, Christina Gravert, who says that men and women seem to approach risk differently, as men are more likely than women to engage in risky behaviors. (“BBC News”)
However, there is hope for creating unity and getting everyone to wear a mask. If masks are mandated it will make more people (men and Covid disbelievers alike) comply with public health guidelines. We have seen this play out in recent months as more and more public places are requiring face masks. Most retail stores, restaurants, and even public parks require a mask upon entry. There is also evidence to suggest that peer pressure has been proven to be effective. Armed with these tools for correcting social behavior, we can go about unifying our divided country’s views on masks and finally defeat this pandemic.
Duarte, Fernando. “Coronavirus Face Masks: Why Men Are Less Likely to Wear Masks.” BBC News, BBC, 18 July 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-53446827.
Brenan, Megan. “Americans' Face Mask Usage Varies Greatly by Demographics.” Gallup.com, Gallup, 13 July 2020, news.gallup.com/poll/315590/americans-face-mask-usage-varies-greatly-demographics.aspx.
Cathey, Libby. ABC News, ABC News Network, 2 Oct. 2020, abcnews.go.com/Politics/trump-downplaying-virus-mocked-wearing-masks-months/story?id=73392694.