On June 30th, Mitch McConnell said on TV, “Put on a mask. It is not complicated.”1 The truth is, it has become complicated. Why has wearing a mask become a controversial point for many Americans? As a nation, we have historically resisted the enforcement of rules that we felt encroached on our civil liberties. For example, when the ban on indoor smoking was first enacted in 1995, it was met with rebellion, with many proclaiming that it was an infringement on personal rights.2 The resistance occurred despite the plethora of data that was available on the negative effects of smoking on health. However, with time, compliance increased, especially when that defiance came with repercussions. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of time with this current pandemic. Could the solution be to make it mandatory to wear a mask and enforce with fines if noncompliant?
On June 18th of this year, Gov. Newsom ordered Californians to wear a mask when in public. This has been replicated, to varying degrees, in only 24 other states.3 Earlier in May, a government poll of 1,000 Americans revealed that about 23% of them seldom/never wore a mask while in public4. Some of the reasons cited for the lack of compliance with wearing a mask were that it was seen as an imposition on personal freedom or as a sign of weakness and that masks were not comfortable to wear for long periods of time for some people.5
What adds to the controversy of this situation are the conflicting messages sent by key leadership as well as significant health entities, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Per the CDC, cloth masks are recommended when in public, when others outside of one’s immediate household are present, and especially when social distancing is not easily maintained.6 This recommendation was based on current understanding of how respiratory disease spreads as well as evidence emerging from current clinical studies. Wearing a mask is especially critical under the situations outlined by the CDC since asymptomatic individuals can infect others unbeknownst to either of them. The WHO, on the other hand, advises local governments to encourage the use of masks among populations with high numbers of COVID 19; otherwise, wearing a mask is only a part of a comprehensive strategy.7 Similarly, the leadership in the White House has also been sending the American people mixed messages, with the president saying there is no need to have a national mandate for wearing masks while staff were ordered to wear them after a scare when some tested positive.8
What it comes down to is that masks became a political statement. What we must do, however, is to see it for what it truly is: a public health measure. Wearing a mask is about showing solidarity with one another during this pandemic. Wearing a mask is essentially a demonstration of a concern for public safety—especially that of the vulnerable members of our society. It is also about protecting the healthcare system from being overwhelmed by a surge in COVID-19 patients.
We all need to set our politics aside and examine the facts. We know that this disease is airborne; therefore, covering our noses and mouths will help protect those around us as well as ourselves from transmission, especially when combined with frequent hand washing and keeping our distance. For the sake of my family, I will do it. For the sake of my neighbor, I will do it. For the sake of humanity, I will do it. I am my brother’s keeper.
Rasha Abdrabou, DrPH, MPH
Dr. Abdrabou is the Director of Education Assessment for the Department of Physician Assistant Sciences and Assistant Professor at Loma Linda University School of Allied Health Professions. Her research interests include the opioid crisis and its implications for different populations; food insecurity amongst low income populations; and health policies related to food quality.