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Refusal to wear masks - the tension between freedom and externalities

Dealing with others actions is the price of freedom

During COVID-19 we are seeing people in heavily infected countries like the United States refusing to wear masks. An often-stated reason is that, as one lady put it, "things got to breathe". On a surface level, refusal to wear a mask could be about breathing, but that's probably not all that is going on here. If people aren't wearing masks due to deeply-held beliefs, efforts to convince people to wear a mask by demonstrating that it doesn't affect breathing are likely to be futile.

Refusal to wear masks is an example of the tension between freedom and externalities, where the actions of a group threaten the rest. Anti-vaccination, bad driving and smoking are some of the other examples that come to mind. Unfortunately, we see this type of problem a lot. It's part of the hell which is other people.

If even a small proportion of people refuse to wear masks, it increases the risk for everyone else. So there are few excuses for not wearing one. But that doesn't always matter if people hold different values and opinions. Arguments over wearing masks are a minefield and probably won't lead anywhere. I've written before on how hard it is to convince anti-vaxxers, and how arguing can reinforce their conviction. This post looks at the same sorts of issues in relation to masks.

Proportion of people wearing face masks in public across different countries

Source: YouGov, accessed 1 August 2020

Beneath the surface, there are deep reasons why people are not wearing masks. It would take a lot to change their mind.

There are superficial reasons for not wearing a mask, like the appearance of the mask or laziness. However, for some non-mask wearers, it may be deeper than that. Some reasons could include:

  • Religion - on the video linked above we hear a woman claiming she won't wear a mask because "they" want to interfere with God's breathing system. If someone isn't wearing a mask for religious reasons, what do they care about the facts around the extent to which it compromises breathing?

  • Education deficit - if you would prefer to take your chances with COVID-19 rather than wear a mask, then you clearly don't understand risk. But we can't say that these people need to be educated because there is already a huge amount of authoritative information out there suggesting face masks, and also...

  • Distrust of authority and government... they might mistrust authority figures trying to educate them anyway. People who have been taken advantage of by elites, economically, politically, or otherwise are less likely to trust expert advice on health issues, particularly in countries with high levels of inequality. Skepticism of authority isn't always a bad thing, but too much of it is dangerous.

  • Different logic/morality - one of the core arguments behind wearing a mask is communal safety. By having everyone wear a mask we are all better off due to the reduction in transmission. People not wearing a mask may be more individualistic/selfish.

  • "It won't happen to me" - denial is a strong motivator for ignoring instructions. If you think COVID-19 won't happen to you, why would you wear a mask? Even introspective people fall prey to this. The facts and figures around exponential increases in cases don't seem to matter if you're in denial.

  • Poor role models - the initial refusal of authoritative figures like Trump to wear a mask has no doubt played a role. What's good for the President is good enough for me, right?

None of the items on this list are going to change in someone's mind over the course of a regular conversation, unless that person is remarkably open-minded. They are deep-rooted philosophical objections. Arguing about safety for instance to encourage someone to wear a mask isn't going to work in this circumstance. Though of course with people at risk, there isn't necessarily time to deal with the root cause.

The immediate solution to dealing with this is heavy-handed. Police crackdowns could force people to wear masks, or at least stay home. This imposes on individual freedom but could limit the externalities of not wearing a mask. However, are the risks to societal cohesion worth it? The soft solution is to socially-distance and walk away. One thing is for certain - embarrassing people who don't wear a mask isn't an effective solution, as tempting as it is.


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