As we head toward winter and COVID-19 numbers continue to rise nationwide, we find ourselves once again having a societal reckoning over the need to wear protective masks.
It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So, why is there still a sizable segment of the SA population that either refuses to wear masks or treats the idea of practicing effective COVID-19 prevention methods as unnecessary?
Masks, lockdowns, restrictions on socialising and closure of businesses will continue in some form for… well, who knows? In the first phase of the pandemic, most of us were on the same page, staying home if we could. Successive curtailments and liberations have resulted in varying levels of tolerance, boredom and desire to throw ourselves bodily into vats of wine. Some are still in survival mode, while others take the rules as seriously as you might adhere to the “serving suggestion” on a packet of fishcakes. “Sprigs of coriander and a fried egg on top? Wear a mask over my nose and mouth?! Couldn’t be me!” they cry.
Amid a third lockdown, some of us are going to work, some children need taking to school, not everyone has time to sit hunched over a phone from 6:30am smashing the refresh button trying to get a slot for online shopping delivery. We have to go outside sometime; we must still be around each other.
It’s frustrating when you’re doing your best, sticking to the rules. To see someone flouting them feels like a personal insult, like your stickling has been for nothing. It even runs the risk of inspiring the previously prudent to conclude if they can’t beat them, join them – peer pressure’s favourite motto. So, how do you deal with the people who don’t seem to care?
Don’t assume it’s vindictive
It might not be wilful; avail yourself of the benefit of the doubt. The only consistency in messaging is that it’s been confusing and subject to change at a moment’s notice. Not everyone is glued to press conferences, on social media most of the day or braving the doom and gloom of newspapers. Maybe they missed a memo.
They’re not your enemy
Someone not wearing a mask over their nose isn’t quite the same as influencers nipping to Dubai and back for a go on the waterslides. You’ll always get crackpots, trouble-causers, conspiracy theorists and generic morons who mistake being a contrarian for a personality, but we must believe most miscreants aren’t acting in bad faith and wish you specific harm.
Consider behind the scenes
Perhaps there’s too much focus on considering every eventuality before complaining – “Maybe they’re having a bad day,” is often flashed like diplomatic immunity – but maybe there’s a reason why your neighbours are having a gathering or always seem to have friends over. They might be in a bubble, grieving or have mental health issues. It’s not up to you to verify this, either. Ask yourself whether obsessing over it is doing you more harm than good.
Is it worth it?
How do you imagine the outcome? Are this person’s actions putting you in danger? Could things snowball if you remonstrate? Will they respond at all, let alone well? The line between a concerned citizen speaking up and someone lying prostrate with a bloodied nose is very fine if you argue with the wrong person. Pick your battles and don’t think ostensibly easy targets will be any less hostile or aggressive.
Consider your approach
The government advice is not to challenge anyone who’s not wearing a face covering and to be “mindful and respectful” that some people may be unable to wear one. But, as we’ve seen, plenty of people aren’t paying much attention to government advice, so if you insist on approaching someone who, for example, is wearing a mask that’s not covering their airways, try: “I know this sounds silly, but would you mind putting your mask on? I’d really appreciate it.” Yeah, it’s peak-British but so what?
Or appeal to their better nature: “I hate masks, but my kids are terrified something will happen to me, so I always wear mine. They always ask when I get home if everyone else is wearing them too. Would you mind?” If you don’t have kids, invent some.
If you see no mask anywhere: don’t say anything. Back off. Either they’re exempt or making a point. Either way, don’t get too close.
If someone isn’t keeping their distance, default to mildly apologetic, be friendly. Anger, sarcasm or menace risks making you look like a thundering dickhead and the other person a victim.
Remember, if you’re wearing a mask, they can’t see your full facial expression, so nuance may be lost. Exaggerate your friendly tone to make up for it. Pretend you care, that you’re keeping them safe: “If anything happened to anyone I came into contact with I’d feel awful, wouldn’t you?”
Tap the sign: “Sorry, mate” – ah, “mate”, the jocular, neutral term beloved by both violent bullies and people anxious not to be beaten to death – “not sure if you saw, but… you need to wear a mask/socially distance in the queue/it’s only three customers at a time.” Finish with an amiable, “I know, mad, isn’t it?” even if you don’t believe it, to show you’re on the same side.
Be honest: “I’m terrified of this new variant. I haven’t seen my mum/dad/gran/great-uncle/Joan Collins for months. You understand, right? Better safe than sorry.”
If all else fails: try a well-timed cough, exaggerated throat clearing or a passive-aggressive smoothing down of your own mask over your nose and mouth.
Alternatively, and, if I’m honest, the best solution: remove yourself from the situation. This feels wrong – you shouldn’t have to, they’re to blame, they need to change etc – but knowing when to back down has an excellent survival rate. Inform staff rather than tackling the issue yourself – under law, they must take reasonable steps to ensure people wear masks – but be sympathetic to the risks workers are exposed to day in, day out. Complain directly, by email later if you must, but don’t leave snide reviews or harass them on social media.
Most reasonable people know they’re pushing it and will comply or were genuinely oblivious – I’ve forgotten my mask when nipping to the shop on occasion. Job done, you can smile so intensely your skin crinkles – so it looks authentic through the mask – and get on with your day. Sometimes you’ll meet people who can’t or won’t do as you ask. Mobility issues or learning difficulties might mean people can’t keep their distance and there are numerous exemptions for wearing a mask. Take their word for it. Unless you’re their GP, save your armchair medical expertise for opining you could easily fix that abdominal aortic aneurysm during Holby City. It’s not your place to question them. Remember, too, that deaf people might ask you to remove your mask so they can understand you better. Consider a world beyond your own, with varying accessibility needs. Empathy will get us through this.
Try not to get angry
At best, you’ll make yourself feel stressed, which may lead to irrational choices or illness. At worst, you’ll get into a violent altercation with a stranger in the supermarket . Who needs that, on top of everything else? You won’t feel a hero for long. The media doesn’t really help with this, I know, by shaming rule-breakers or featuring stories of systemic incompetence and overzealous application of the law. Shouting one person into submission won’t automatically make other refuseniks or deniers comply. It can be disheartening when you’re always the one swerving off the pavement to maintain social distancing, but don’t let it get to you. Don’t see it as a burden, see it as your superpower. Take satisfaction in the higher ground being the closest to the sun.
If someone challenges you
If you’re asked to mask up or step back, be calm, patient and considerate. Be aware of anxieties that might drive someone to approach you; don’t be offended.
If we’re going to get through this, we need to make allowances for others and ourselves. One day we’ll be back living side by side. Let’s make sure once the masks are off, we’re actually glad to see one another again.
Main Image: BBC