By Pieter De Wit

In Belgium, where I live, masks have been obligatory on public transport for a couple of weeks. Now, even when entering a store, we must wear one.

And I must say, I don’t like it, I feel like part of my freedom has been taken away and wearing a mask hinders normal social contacts—the number one thing we have all longed for since the lockdown.

But like many of my countrymen and women, I recognise the importance of wearing a mask in public, and I don’t want to be responsible for spreading this disease to more vulnerable people. Unfortunately, this is not the case in all countries, and particularly in the USA.

Mixed Compliance In The US

In America, the noncompliance of wearing masks is out of hand. In Ohio, the governor Mike DeWine had to walk back the order to wear masks, and the same happened in Stillwater, Oklahoma for bars and restaurants. This tells me that people are not complying with government rules, and the authorities have to adapt their regulations—a dangerous cocktail!

In Flint, Michigan, the unthinkable happened, a customer refused to wear a face mask, and in the argument, he shot and killed the security guard. Something is seriously going wrong! 

COVID-19 Is Real: A Wake-up Call

Although a lot remains to be discovered, we already know a great deal about this new coronavirus, with more than 4000 articles published on the topic so far. We must recognise that COVID-19 is real and we, the average person on the street, are not specialists.

I watch the news regularly, and I understand the basics, but I don’t pretend to know what’s best for me and society better than the experts. I admit I don’t generally like to give away any control over my health, but in this case, we must face the facts, listen to the authorities and act in the best interest for ourselves and society. 

At the time of writing this article, about 13.6 million people worldwide are reported to be infected with the virus, the real number could even be higher. Not only in the absolute amount of cases but also per 100k citizens, the US ranks highest in the world for infection rates. If you’re watching the media coverage from the overloaded hospitals, you know these numbers are real. 

Why Are Some People So Stubborn? 

One of the explanations to the mixed compliance is cognitive dissonance, which can be described as an uncomfortable feeling when a belief and a behaviour contradict each other. 

The solution to reducing this contrast, is to change, either your thinking or your behaviour. For example, in these times of corona, we still want to go to our favourite bar with our friends without a mask, just like before. But to justify this desire, we must convince ourselves that it is safe and we will unconsciously minimise the seriousness of the COVID-19. The alternative is to admit to the deadly potential of the virus and act upon it by staying home or wearing a mask, but that’s less appealing!

But we mustn’t fool ourselves. We have to face the reality of the situation, meaning we must change our mindsets and behaviours regarding the continually evolving virus. In a land as polarised as America, changing minds can be the hardest thing to do.

It seems that in a divided United States, wearing a mask has become a political matter. Instead of listening to the scientists and the public-health experts, people see their political leader as the golden standard, and in the case of Republicans, Donald Trump’s advice on masks has been pretty negative. Luckily this seems about to change as Trump has finally started to wear one. 

Damaging Fake News 

One of the reasons people adhere to their political leaders instead of health-care professionals might be because of the problem of information overload and fake news. In a time where there is so much information available, with seemingly convincing evidence for everyone’s opinion, it is difficult to know what is true and what is fake.

The internet is full of malicious fake news, and we don’t always have the time or knowledge to verify all this. One study showed that the simple presence of an image alongside a statement increases our trust immediately. This uncertainty could be one of the reasons many look for answers from political parties that we believe in, trusting that they know what’s best for us. 

It seems clear to me that the pandemic is not over yet. We have been locked inside, have been lonely and maybe suffered financial losses. But denying the seriousness of the coronavirus is unfortunately not the solution.

The only way to conquer this global challenge is to face the facts, listen to the experts and take our responsibilities to others seriously. While I still participate in interesting debates with friends about the sense of all the restrictive measurements being taken, when we go out for lunch afterwards, we all wear our facemasks.