As we begin to reach what we hope to be is the end of the pandemic, one thing I am excited for, like many others, is to be able to stop wearing a mask in public. I can’t wait to do simple, natural things, like smile at people or wear lipstick and see everyone’s full faces. Some states like Texas, Montana, Mississippi, Iowa and North Dakota have already lifted mask mandates against guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But in some countries and cultures, mask-wearing during cold and flu season is normal, which may provide another reason why battling COVID-19 has been easier in those environments, in addition to stricter quarantines and mandates — as seen in New Zealand, for example. Is this something that should become a social norm in the United States? I believe that with what we have learned as a society this past year, wearing face masks when sick should be normalized and accepted as a common courtesy to others.
One of the most shocking things of this past year is the extremely low flu numbers. During normal years, the CDC reports up to 45 million influenza cases, with up to 61,000 deaths. But with this year’s flu season coming to a close, they’ve only seen around 925 cases. According to Dr. Eili Klein, associate professor of emergency medicine at John Hopkins University, this can be attributed to wearing face masks, additional hand washing and social distancing. While this may not all be possible once life returns to normal, individuals who feel ill or experience cold and flu symptoms can continue to wear masks to prevent spread.
In Japan, wearing medical face masks when sick is a common courtesy to avoid sneezes and coughs from landing on surrounding people. In Taiwan, wearing a mask is a common way to protect against smog in their larger cities. After the SARS outbreak in 2002, wearing masks became common practice in many Asian countries to protect against airborne germs and air pollution. These two countries have had low numbers of coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people, which can likely be attributed to common mask practices. With regard to influenza, Japan dealt with 2.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019, much lower than the usual U.S. rates. Wearing a mask may be an efficient way to lower not just influenza rates, but also other respiratory viruses like pneumonia, bronchitis, respiratory syncytial virus and croup in the United States. In other words, although the COVID-19 pandemic may slowly be coming to an end, the use of masks can help prevent the spread of other viruses.
On the other hand, normalizing masks may not be something possible in the United States. According to Dr. Richard Malley, an infectious disease physician at Boston Children’s Hospital, although there is evidence proving that masks have been life-saving in this pandemic, it is likely that some people still won’t wear them. He doubts people would wear them at all without the looming pandemic and mandates. It’s seen by some as a restriction or violation of their rights, despite any benefits of wearing masks. Some politicians even supported these claims. One example is U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who claimed that masks were oppressive and tweeted multiple times under the “FreeYourFace” hashtag. This obviously led to more resistance from the public. While this may be seen simply as utilization of constitutional freedoms, it can also be interpreted as a lack of care for others. New Zealand, which had a fantastic COVID-19 response, remained strong in the fight against the virus by supporting mask mandates and implementing strict quarantine guidelines that the general public followed. In countries like these, masks post-COVID-19 could become a cultural norm, since they seem to care for each other much more. However, contracting certain, less dangerous viruses helps build your immune system, so it’s important that we don’t close ourselves off to all illnesses. Overall, while wearing masks may be a great solution for the future, it may end up being impractical for our current society.
In conclusion, masks have helped other countries prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, and mask-wearing would be beneficial for the United States in preventing the spread of other diseases. But, I doubt it is something we could do here. Although it would be considered common courtesy to wear a face covering while combatting a cold, if this year has shown us anything, it’s the lack of solidarity we have as a society, especially when it comes to caring for our neighbors.
Nicolette Cavallaro is a sophomore majoring in integrative neuroscience.