White Coat, Black Art

Called out for wearing a mask? You're not alone. What may be driving this kind of pandemic aggression

As masking in public places shifts from being a requirement to a recommendation, experts say an uptick in negative comments directed toward those wearing face coverings may be part of a larger trend of increased aggression — such as air rage and domestic violence — during the pandemic.

Experts say criticism could discourage some from wearing masks as an infectious subvariant takes hold

As masking moves from being a requirement to a recommendation, some people say they're facing criticism for wearing a mask. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At her job as a pharmacy assistant, Rebecca Stribbell has heard plenty of comments about wearing a mask behind the counter. 

Even though mask mandates have been lifted in much of the country, she says provincial requirements for health workers — and her own preferences — keep her covering up. 

Her pharmacy processes COVID-19 tests and she says some symptomatic patients visit the store without a face covering. Stribbell says she also wears a mask to protect others from becoming ill.

But negative comments run the gamut, from suggestions that the Langley, B.C., student is upset with B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry or her boss for imposing mask rules, to questions about why she's wearing a mask if they've taken down plexiglass barriers at the cash register. Stribbell says she tries to de-escalate situations by brushing the comments off as jokes.

"It makes it hard at work because you have to keep the sense of professionalism," Stribbell told CBC Radio's White Coat, Black Art. "You know they're not joking, but you can't say anything because you're at work."

A person wearing a mask poses for a selfie while standing on a balcony
Rebecca Stribbell is a student and pharmacy assistant in Langley, B.C. She says she's faced critical comments and stares while wearing a mask in public. (Submitted by Rebecca Stribbell)

As masking in public places shifts from being a requirement to a recommendation, experts say an uptick in negative comments directed toward those wearing face coverings may be part of a larger trend of increased aggression — such as air rage and domestic violence — during the pandemic.

They also warn that it could discourage people from wearing masks at the same time the more infectious BA.5 subvariant is becoming dominant in Canada.

"I suspect that some of these bullies, some of these individuals who harass people, are telling themselves that they have the true knowledge, that they know that masks are not necessary," said Dr. Steven Taylor, a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.

"They might tell themselves, 'Oh, I'm just educating someone.' But they're doing it in such an aggressive fashion. It's not just good-natured education; it seems to have a malicious intent."

LISTEN | White Coat, Black Art speaks with experts about what's behind mask criticism: 

'No one wants to be told that they're sheep'

Though the comments at her workplace have been "inquisitive" rather than mean-spirited, Stribbell says the criticism she faces in public is harsher — "almost degrading" — especially when she's out and about with her boyfriend, who is of Taiwanese descent. 

She says she has noticed people commenting about them under their breath, staring and even pointing.

"It makes you question whether you should continue wearing a mask," she said. "If I'm getting this comment every time I go outside, is it worth it?"

"No one wants to be told that they're sheep."

Many transit agencies, including the Toronto Transit Commission, pictured, have removed mandatory mask requirements. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Unlike vaccinations, masks are a very visible symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their use is also more common in Asian countries where they're worn to protect against respiratory viruses, from the cold to COVID-19, potentially indicating mask-related harassment is motivated by racism, Taylor said. 

Opposition to face coverings is nothing new, despite more visible and outspoken criticism floating around social media networks.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, a protest movement known as the Anti-Mask League formed in San Francisco, Calif., in response to government mandates requiring citizens to mask up.

When those mandates were dropped, it was almost like a "carnival atmosphere," according to news reports at the time, Taylor said.

But like today, some continued to mask up — and Taylor says there were reports of harassment then, too.

"In one episode, a man was walking down the street, going to work, wearing his mask, and you had a gang of these young youths behind him chanting, 'Take off your mask,'" he said.

Societies eventually land on what is acceptable behaviour. Some of that gets legislated and some of it just gets accepted.- Dr. Andrew Morris, infectious diseases physician

Psychological reactance

While research on mask-related harassment is lacking, Taylor says something called psychological reactance could be at play. It's the idea that someone has an "allergic reaction" of sorts to taking direction from others.

"People come up to them and say, 'You need to put on a mask.' They react by getting angry and saying, 'You're not the boss of me,'" said Taylor.

"Those individuals have … felt pushed around for a year or more by having to wear masks. And then suddenly the mandates are lifted and perhaps some of those individuals are wanting to vent their frustration."

In a survey of more than 2,000 people conducted by Taylor, 16 per cent reported not wearing a mask. That group tended to score higher on metrics related to negative attitudes toward masking, according to the study.

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Summer COVID-19 wave sparks concern

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Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious diseases physician at Sinai Health and University Health Network in Toronto, says he continues to wear a KN95, or sometimes an N95, while in crowded indoor spaces. 

On a recent trip to New Orleans, he says he and his family were criticized for that decision.

"There were a few snide comments — under the breath, but audible comments — you know, commenting on the fact that we were wearing masks and we were paranoid," he recalled.

Experts recommend masking in crowded spaces

That kind of criticism could have two effects on those who choose to mask, Morris warns.

They may begin to avoid spaces where they believe they run the risk of being harassed for the decision. Others, feeling shamed by others, may choose to forego masks.

"Even stares, I guess for some people, whether that's true or just perceived, you know, can be a kind of shaming," said Morris.

Public health campaigns could help reduce the stigma. One public service announcement from the government of Ireland makes the point that continuing to wear a mask in public reduces the risk to vulnerable communities, such as those with pre-existing health conditions or who are pregnant.

Morris applauded the ad's messaging but said after two years of public health restrictions, Canadians may not yet be ready for such an approach.

"I'm certainly no psychologist, but I think you would find that the behavioural experts will say that you need readied ears to take in that kind of messaging," he said.

That could change in the coming weeks or months, however.

As a seventh COVID-19 wave, fuelled by the BA.5 subvariant, takes hold in Canada, Morris says he expects case numbers will soon rise. 

Whether that will change a perceived increase in aggression toward those who wear masks remains to be seen.

"Societies eventually land on what is acceptable behavior. Some of that gets legislated and some of it just gets accepted," Morris said.

Meanwhile, the physician says if you're in a poorly ventilated space with a lot of people, you should still wear a mask.

Interviews with Dr. Steven Taylor and Dr. Andrew Morris produced by Colleen Ross

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