The Effect of Differing Approaches to Living on Mask-wearing for COVID


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   9-21

ABSTRACT:  The apparently senseless and intractable conflicts over wearing masks during the COVID pandemic can be understood in terms of the differing methods of dealing with threat used by those with who are better off and have more resources versus those with who are worse off and have fewer resources.

KEY WORDS:  pandemic, wearing masks, styles of coping

Throughout the current COVID pandemic there have been conflicts about whether people should wear or need not wear masks.  It is scientifically clear that masks reduce the risk of contracting COVID from the breath of others as well as the risk of giving COVID to others through the virus on our own nasal passages and in our lungs.  Masks are not completely effective but do reduce the risk.  Nevertheless, a sizeable part of the population refuse to wear masks and fight to keep schools from requiring their children to wear masks in school.  In Florida the governor (Mr. DeSantis) is vaccinated and wears a mask sometimes but is using legal means and financial penalties to prevent school districts from requiring mask-wearing by students, thus in effect increasing somewhat the chances that non-wearers will become infected with COVID.  People who are willing to wear masks have a very hard time understanding this, since it seems to them that masks help everyone, at least to some degree. 

Perception of the risk involved partially determines a person’s attitude about mask-wearing (and vaccinations).  More liberal media have played up the horrors of serious cases of COVID and talk about it daily, thus making it seem like it is a larger problem for the population as a whole than the actual statistics would suggest.  (Public health pronouncements could be seen as promoting the goal of having no COVID deaths at all, while opponents of mask-wearing point to the apparent lack of similar concern about flu deaths and the incongruity of having workers in “essential industries” subject themselves to greater COVID risk by continuing to work.) 

More conservative media have down-played the risk and the effects of COVID, thus raising doubts for people about whether there is a serious risk.  At the present time (9-1-21) our Center for Disease Control reports that there have been about 40 million cases of COVID recorded in this country by the healthcare system and about 640 thousand deaths.  Many more (number unknown) have had COVID but have not been symptomatic or have not felt any different from having “a cold” or the flu. 

Given our population of 330 million, 12 percent of people have had recorded cases of COVID so far (12 out of 100), and 0.2 percent of our total population have died (1 out of every 500).  1.6 percent of the people who have had recorded cases of COVID have died (about 3 out of every 200 people).  More people will get COVID and more people will die of COVID in the future, but the rate of dying has declined significantly as doctors have learned what they can do to combat the disease.  It’s not clear what percent of the total population will have had COVID (herd immunity?) when the pandemic is “over,” although there will probably continue to be cases every year, just as we have with the flu.

Given equal opportunity for getting COVID, 1 out of 500 is not as much of a risk (in my own opinion) as liberal media are suggesting, and the risk of children having COVID is significantly lower than that for adults.  3 dying out of every 200 who get the disease is a higher risk but still might be a risk a large number of people would take if that meant that they didn’t have to bother themselves about worrying about getting COVID and didn’t have to get vaccinated or wear masks.  Additional points of contention have been about vaccine hesitancy or rejection, requiring vaccinations, and the perception that the CDC has been “wrong” in some of its reports and in its guidelines for how to combat the pandemic.  Critics apparently don’t like the changes of guidelines, even though the changes have been based on acquiring additional data and growing knowledge about what works and what doesn’t.

Perhaps the perception of risk and the resistance to government intervention are significantly different between persons who are better off and have more resources and persons who are less well off and have fewer resources.  The former group are more likely to feel that their choices and actions have impact on their wellbeing, that they have few daily financial stresses, and that any significant problem in their lives is a significant event.  They are used to coping by using information, and they are relatively trusting of government-provided information. 

The latter group feel that they have less control over their lives and what happens to them, and they have more daily financial stresses (frequently having to put off paying bills, no money for healthcare).  They do not do well with navigating complex systems and feel that they have often been mistreated by government and by the rich.  In order to cope with daily life, many of them rely on courage and faith (in contrast to the former group, who feel that they succeed through their own actions, including following the rules).  Thus, this second group view COVID as something to be faced up to with courage, and they are more likely to believe that God will protect them if they are “good” and moral.  They have a more fatalistic view of human life, accepting that we “go” when it is “our time,” which may have little to do with our coping efforts. 

This difference in views of life and coping could explain the different attitudes about following the rules and about risk.  The first group believes that their actions control their outcomes, while the second group frequently feel that their coping options are limited and that they are stymied by institutional rules and requirements, even when they try to follow them.  The first group, feeling generally successful, views getting COVID and the possible consequences of that as being a very “big deal,” which should justify all reasonable efforts to avoid COVID, while the second group see it as undesirable but still on a par with many of the other stresses and risks they face frequently.  The first group will follow the CDC guidelines because they believe that is the route to success, while the second group is suspicious of rules and guidelines because they have so often not worked in their favor.  The first group is more risk-averse in general (at least of risks they consider dangerous), while the second group are more likely to flaunt their courage in the face of the pandemic, not seeing much evidence around them of a pandemic (given the above statistics, and given the fact that many don’t know of anyone who has died from it).  The first group sees CDC guidelines as life-giving, while the second group sees them as restrictions on their free choice and are more likely to resent them.  The first group encourages their children to follow the rules, while the second group encourages their children to face trouble with courage and to resist “unnecessary” restrictions on their “freedom.”

The public conflicts over mask-wearing and vaccinations would seem to involve one’s coping strategies for living as much as the facts regarding disease transmission and impact.  Both of the approaches to living described here are “legitimate,” and it is not suggested that one is “better than” the other.  Each has advantages and disadvantages, but both are designed to serve the same motives universal to all human beings.  In a democracy, it is necessary to accept, for working purposes, these (and other) approaches, with their mindsets, worldviews, and customs if we are appropriately manage important issues.  Rapprochemont concerning mask wearing requirements (and vaccine requirements) would seem to require accessing basic emotions about caring for all citizens (even those who have other views) to find common ground, rather than arguing about requirements.  For example, perhaps some schools could have only mask-wearing students and other schools could have children whose parents favor their not wearing masks.  Perhaps restaurants could have separate sections for diners.  These solutions have their own problems, of course, but accommodations that could be accepted by both groups could be in the best interest of us all.