Day 6

How psychology can explain pushback against mandatory masks

As governments try to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19, mandatory mask laws are becoming more common — and that has a vocal minority pushing back in a phenomenon best explained by psychology, says Dr. Steven Taylor.

'There's a sense of moral outrage — that they feel that their rights are being trampled upon': psychologist

A woman wears a face mask as she walks along a street in Montreal on June 27, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Listen9:33

As governments try to clamp down on the spread of COVID-19, mandatory mask laws are becoming more common — and that has a vocal minority pushing back in a phenomenon best explained by psychology, says Dr. Steven Taylor.

"For some people, when their freedoms are violated, or they perceive their freedoms are violated, they respond with something called psychological reactance," said Taylor, a clinical psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and author of The Psychology of Pandemics.

"What we're seeing here is exactly what happened during the 1918 and 1919 so-called Spanish flu pandemic, where people were resisting to wear masks because they thought their civil liberties were being violated."

On Tuesday, Toronto city council voted in favour of a temporary bylaw that will require the use of masks when inside public spaces. It's among a growing list of laws in Canada and the United States that require their use in public spaces and on public transit.

Masks, however, have become somewhat of a political flashpoint with opponents criticizing the laws. In viral videos, people have been seen lashing out at grocery store employees when asked to don the face covering, while others have pushed legislators to justify the moves.

"There are a variety of reasons why people are reluctant to wear masks ... For some people, it's this feeling of claustrophobia. For other people, they see the whole thing as being overblown," Taylor told Day 6 guest host Peter Armstrong.

"But for people who react with extreme anger about being forced to wear masks, there's a sense of moral outrage — that they feel that their rights are being trampled upon."

CBC News asked two experts what's lost from the human experience when one of our biggest tools of communication is eclipsed and muffled by cloth. 5:30

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, non-medical masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in situations where it's difficult or impossible to maintain physical distance — and wearing a face covering could have ripple effects.

"There's been some recent surveys of Canadians that actually showed that those who mask do better with the other public health measures of hand hygiene and physical distance," said Dr. Amy Tan, who is part of the group #Masks4Canada that's advocating for mandatory mask rules, in an interview on The Current.

"We are not saying that masks are the end all and be all — they are not the magic bullet. They are an added layer in addition to physical distance and hand hygiene," she added.

Masks unfamiliar in Canada

But skepticism over the use of masks isn't limited to the perception of government overreach, Taylor argues.

Seeing others wearing a mask could be a message to some. For example, it may signal to a person that the wearer is infected with COVID-19, Taylor says. The assumption could be more nefarious, however.

"For other people with racist attitudes, they see mask wearing as a sign of Asian culture, and for some racists, that's offensive to them," said Taylor.

Riders on Toronto transit will be required to wear face coverings on subways, streetcars and buses as of July 2, 2020. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Masks are considered a hygienic practice in parts of Asia, and officials in some Asian countries have recommended using a mask for protection since the start of the pandemic.

Speaking on The Current, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for Ontario's Niagara Region, says the lack of familiarity of masks in North America could also be contributing to attitudes around their use.

"Part of it is that we don't have a history of us all wearing face coverings here," he told guest host Rosemary Barton. "In Asian countries, for example, where we've seen a much greater uptake."

In Canada and the U.S., the messaging around masks has been confusing. Until recent weeks, officials have discouraged using masks, and other personal protective equipment, in hopes of protecting stockpiles for health-care workers.

Now, many have changed their tune — and that has led to confusion, Hirji says.

"There isn't the clarity, and a clear message, coming from all of our leaders right now," he said.

"Back in mid-March, we had all our leaders coming out with a very key message of staying home, and I'm not hearing that from all of our leaders right now around wearing face coverings."

He adds that pandemic fatigue — a desire to end restrictions and return to "normal life" — may factor into the pushback.

An 'invisible' pandemic

When it comes to convincing the public that masks are needed, health officials are faced with the fact the COVID-19 pandemic has been relatively "invisible" to the average person, Taylor adds.

"If we look back to the 1918 influenza pandemic, there were coffins piled up in rooms, piled up in the streets. The sights of hearses was a daily occurrence," he told Armstrong.

"People got — every day — a very vivid depiction of how serious this was."

A face mask is meant to limit the spread of COVID-19. But if it slips below your nose, hovers around your chin, or you touch the outside with your hands, medical experts say that might be riskier than not wearing one at all. 3:55

Deaths related to COVID-19, however, have been largely out of public view, giving some the impression that the pandemic isn't as serious as it could be, he says.

Taylor believes that officials should have chosen a proactive approach to mask wearing in an effort to normalize the practice. The same, he adds, should be done when it comes to a future vaccine.

"Six months ago, I was talking about the need to prepare for vaccination non-adherence — of a massive pushback against the vaccine when we get a vaccine. We need to prepare for that now," Taylor said.

In order to convince skeptics, Taylor believes that the messaging needs to change. Mask wearing, he says, should be presented as a patriotic practice or duty to your fellow citizens.

"Just like you get up when you do the seven o'clock cheer for health-care workers, you should be wearing a mask — and a mask is a sign that you're doing something to help protect your community."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

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