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If real heroes wear masks, what are we waiting for?

Introduction by Croakey: On 11 July, Dr Ruth Armstrong went to a pharmacy in Sydney for a fourth COVID vaccine dose, after making an online booking with no trouble at all.

At the pharmacy she noticed that almost nobody else waiting for the vaccine was wearing a mask in a busy suburban chemist shop.

The person who administered the vaccine was wearing a surgical mask under her nose, vaccinating person after person in a tiny, closed room.

Armstrong later tweeted about her experience: “It made me wonder what the mask hesitancy is about. Do people think they’re not effective? Are they worried others will think they’re walking around with COVID or as a close contact? Is it the cost of masks? Are they waiting for a mandate?”

Below, Armstrong, a former GP, and a Croakey editor and writer who has spent the past two years working on the public health COVID response, delves further into these questions, with a pointed message for politicians whose actions do not align with COVID policy statements.


Ruth Armstrong writes:

Is there anything more Australian than our current relationship with face masks as a mode of slowing COVID-19 transmission?

A recent segment on the ABC’s The World today radio program began with a series of Vox Pops asking people how they would feel about the return of mask mandates.

From a Melbourne coffee shop, this:

“I’d wear one, straight away. I’m actually not wearing one now, much to my shame. But yes, no problem. I’m a Melbournian so I’ve been through it all. Whatever we need to do, we need to do it again.”

Another man in the same cafe observed that a recommendation was more like a “general suggestion” whereas mandates “have a little more weight to them and people are more likely to comply with a mandate than with a recommendation”.

Among Brisbane shoppers, the sentiment was similar. No, I’m not wearing a mask in the shops but yes I support mask wearing in crowded indoor spaces.

I visited my GP and made a light-hearted complaint about sitting in his waiting room with other patients – a couple of whom weren’t wearing masks.

Similar response – Nah we haven’t made it compulsory for patients again (we do recommend it) but yeah we probably should.

Masking up with Dr Ruth Armstrong

The World Today program did include one dissenting Vox pop from Melbourne, representing a feeling that is likely widely held. As one man told the interviewer:

“I think it’s up to every individual to make their own choice on that side. Personally myself I’m not too stressed about it. In this day and age we’ve been through a lot, so now it’s just basically up to us to make our own decisions on how we live our life and how we protect ourselves.”

At this point mask mandates have been ruled out, so any campaign to increase use would need to take a range of levers and sentiments into account.

A few from the above:

  • People by and large want to do the right thing but need a nudge
  • People value autonomy and choice
  • People might not naturally look beyond personal risk.

Anecdotally there’s a bit of peer pressure involved too. Nobody wants to look like a scaredy-cat or a kill-joy. Nobody wants to be the only person in the room wearing a reminder they could give you a nasty virus, or you them. The masked have a bit of an image problem.

Thinking about a campaign to promote mask use, I really liked the idea behind the CW Television Network’s Real Heroes Wear Masks campaign, but would make it more grassroots and show that mask wearing is a decision we make outside the shopping centre or the cinema or the concert venue, and also making the point that the more people who mask up, the safer we all are.

How great would it be if such a campaign gained traction on social media, with Instagram stories and TikTok showing everyday heroes masking up before going into the fray?

At this point in the pandemic I don’t think heavy handed fear tactics about personal threat from COVID will work because many people have had COVID and have had mild symptoms or recovered completely. Mask wearing for many will be about avoiding the inconvenience of a bout of COVID, and protecting other people.

However, people do need to understand that health services – GPs, ambulances and hospitals – are currently overwhelmed with COVID and influenza, and responses to non-COVID emergencies are at times dangerously slow.

A campaign that shared stories about this problem, as well as things like the painful delays to elective surgery, would need to be well crafted because the link between health system collapse and mask wearing is less clear. Perhaps the hero narrative could be extended to saving the health system.

And of course, if only more of our political leaders would give up on the nah..yeah approach to mask wearing, instead of the photos and clips we see of them every day.

Nah, I’m not wearing a mask at this conference or meeting (or vaccination appointment!) but yeah, we support the wearing of masks in indoor places where distancing is not possible.

Cop that for a public health message Australia!

[Note from Croakey: Many have noted the mixed messages conveyed by this tweet on 12 July, showing the Prime Minister and a health professional not wearing a mask, despite 8 July advice from the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee to wear “a mask outside your home when in crowded, indoor environments” and for employers to review their occupational health and safety risks and mitigations.]

• See also this detailed survey of health leaders’ views on effective mask-promotion strategies


See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on COVID