Perspectives | COVID-19

Can wearing a mask become a new normal in Kosovo and the region?

By - 06.05.2020

Defeating the virus is a social issue, not just a biological one.

The current coronavirus pandemic that is wreaking havoc on the world has forced us all to become internet experts on topics that would never have entered our minds just a few months ago.

One of those topics that has stirred up plenty of discussion globally is the wearing of masks. In Kosovo, mask wearing used to be associated with the toxic air quality, but now, wearing a mask during a viral outbreak is not simply a means of potentially protecting oneself from getting infected, but it is also a way to show respect to those around us and care for the vulnerable. 

In times like these, if we view a community as a team, we need to develop a mindset that if one individual fails, the whole team fails. In order to overcome the ongoing public health crisis, we must act as a team and be ready for the worst-case scenario. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Much of the research now shows that masks could be a useful tool in reducing the spread of COVID-19. But it is important to note that official advice on wearing a mask still varies. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is “no evidence that wearing a mask … by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including Covid-19.” 

That’s partly based on a number of uncertainties and risk factors, such as people not using masks properly or inadvertently touching their faces more, as well as the fact that a mask can lead to a false sense of security and a failure to take other proven preventive measures seriously such as physical distancing. There’s also concern that issuing blanket advice for everybody to wear masks would prevent essential supplies of protective equipment reaching those frontline medical workers who need them most.

Experts have increasingly acknowledged that the widespread use of masks could help prevent the spread of the disease.

The official advice from WHO is therefore that only those people who show symptoms or those who are vulnerable to the disease should wear masks, as a general rule. 

But as the outbreak has worsened, some have noted that instructing only those with symptoms to wear masks is essentially asking people to put a sign on themselves inviting fear and hostility. And the evidence also now shows that people can spread COVID-19 days before they actually show any symptoms. Meaning we don’t actually know if we’re infected — and inadvertently spreading the virus — or not.

Lately, experts have increasingly acknowledged that the widespread use of masks could help prevent the spread of the disease. 

Masks alone cannot replace all the other approaches needed to combat the COVID-19 virus, like washing your hands and practicing physical distancing. But changing our approach to them could be one part of the solution.

In this, we can learn from East Asia, where the use of masks is widespread. East Asia has had some of the best early results in fighting this pandemic, after becoming the first region where the disease spread. Many parts of the region have seen a slower increase in infections, particularly in terms of critical cases.

Meanwhile, much of our continent is seeing many dead and record highs of infection cases. 

The reasons for this difference are likely many and varied — and there are still far too many uncertainties to provide concrete answers. However, one factor that could be relevant is the widespread use of masks in public that was already an accepted societal norm in many parts of East Asia.

What is at play is social behaviorism

Imagine a scenario where we are at war. The government requires us to live under blackout at night so that enemy bombers would not be able to find their targets. How would you feel about those people who kept their lights on? That is what we are dealing with here. 

Wearing a mask is not just about individual behavior, but it has social implications, too. Scientists sometimes ignore this, since they often rely solely on the results of scientific experiments. Beating the current coronavirus will require a dose of social science too.

It is important to understand virus outbreaks not simply as biological events, but also as social processes, which is especially key to containing the virus successfully.

Many places in East Asia have had more success than we have in suppressing the infection curve, partly because they are more culturally willing to act collectively.

They have experienced contagion in recent years. All they have done now is apply the lessons.

Step outside your door without a mask in Hong Kong or any other major city in East Asia these days, you may well get a disapproving look. Anyone caught without wearing a mask risks becoming socially excluded, or a social pariah. 

One study of community transmission in Beijing, China, during the severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in 2002-04 found that “consistently wearing a mask in public was associated with a 70% reduction in the risk of catching SARS.” 

The SARS epidemic outbreak taught citizens in East Asia a lesson about the importance of wearing masks, especially in Hong Kong, where many died. The key difference between these societies and us, is that they have experienced contagion in recent years. All they have done now is apply the lessons learned previously.

Various studies of the SARS epidemic showed that wearing masks created trust in the face of the dangers of the pandemic. According to one study, the SARS epidemic created a so-called mask culture, which cultivated a sense of civic duty and mutual obligation. 

A mask culture brings together everyone faced with a common threat.

In the Balkans, the measures introduced in April by the government in Kosovo require citizens outside to wear masks or scarves covering their faces. Also, recently, North Macedonia has made wearing masks compulsory. Despite the official measures, on a social level, it is still perfectly acceptable to walk around bare-faced. 

This again highlights that it is not only about directives and medical advice coming from central authorities, but it is also about culture and history. 

But as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, will this social behavior change in Kosovo and the rest of the Balkans?

You might roll your eyes at such striking measures by governments. There is also disagreement over whether all types of masks prevent people from inhaling the novel coronavirus, even if the use of masks does reduce the risk of those infected from spreading the disease. Yet it would be a mistake to sneer at such measures, particularly for people who are unavoidably in more crowded settings where the risk of infection is higher.

Wearing a mask may help to serve as a visual reminder of the dangers of the pandemic, which could act as a behavioral nudge to society. It is not only about fending off a disease, but it is also a way to show that we all want to stick together under the bane of contagion. 

Before the vaccine, what is left to do is make behavioral changes together, as a society.

Putting on a mask every day before stepping outside your door will become a ritual just like wearing your shoes, or — for the time being — avoiding crowded places and practicing physical distancing. 

Every culture has a different standard when it comes to defining what is acceptable behavior, but no matter where you come from, some fundamental values with regard to respect, freedom and shared responsibility remain unchanged.

Remember, masks are not the cure but rather a prevention and mitigation measure. Finding a true cure is unlikely before a vaccine is approved. 

So, before the vaccine, what is left to do is make behavioral changes together, as a society. If we do not wish to have strict measures such as centralized quarantine and draconian population controls, then we must become more serious in our efforts to change the behaviors we can individually control. 

This is exactly what the collective action theory addresses: If all contribute to the main goal, we will all succeed.

Since anyone could be a carrier of COVID-19, whether we’re displaying symptoms or apparently healthy, in the spirit of solidarity, we need to protect each other. 

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.