Over Memorial Day weekend, crowds packed beaches, parks, and trails–and while masks covering the nose and mouth are required whenever out in public in Los Angeles County, some people just can’t bring themselves to follow the rules. Infections continue to climb, patients continue to die, and a catastrophic “second wave” remains a possibility. Public health experts believe wearing a mask meaningfully reduces the chance of spreading virus, but that doesn’t seem to be enough for some people.
A security guard at a Family Dollar store in Michigan was shot to death after refusing entry to a customer not wearing a mask. In another incident, a customer at a store wiped his nose and mouth onto a store employee who asked him to put on a mask while shopping. Retail and food service workers across the country report verbal and physical abuse for asking customers to comply with mask guidelines.
“As psychiatrists, we commonly see how psychological factors and stigma can prevent us from making healthy, even lifesaving decisions,” wrote Eileen Kavanagh and Dirk Winter of the Columbia University Medical Center in an op-ed for The New York Times. “Nowhere does this seem more evident than in our current reluctance to embrace universal mask wearing.”
Stigma may enter the equation for some because they think wearing the mask indicates to others that they are sick, or because they think it might indicate fear or weakness.
Northwestern University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jacqueline Gollan thinks that some individuals may underestimate the seriousness of the pandemic or not fully understand the element of prevention. But, she told NBC News, there’s another facet as well: mask rejection may be an intentional act of rebellion, an attempt to feel some sense of power amid a complicated global situation.
“Sometimes it’s a matter of wanting to control one’s own behavior and, in wanting to feel like they’re in control, they will do something like this,” Gollan said.
As with everything, politics is in the mix, too. “To not see your leaders wearing masks in public or on photo ops suggests they’re excluded from the guidelines or they don’t see it as warranted,” Gollan noted.
Some have come to associate wearing a mask with a more liberal worldview, and going without as a sign of loyalty to Donald Trump. One recent study found evidence of a correlation between support for the president and a distaste for wearing masks, engaging in social distancing, or practicing other COVID-19 prevention techniques.
It could be that refusing to wear a mask comes from a place of denial. Having to adopt a strange, new practice could mean finally acknowledging the severity of the pandemic and what could be long-term changes to how we live, which can be a scary thing to reckon with.
“If everybody started wearing masks, suddenly, the old way of life is gone,” David Abrams, a psychologist and professor of social and behavioral science at New York University’s School of Global Public Health told CNN. “You’ve suddenly admitted that this is the new normal. But you don’t want to believe that.”