Bicycling has always been part of who I am because it offered me the freedom to explore as a preteen. As an adult I have always been a bicycle commuter and a very visible part of the community as I pedal around town to do my errands. But, I didn’t always wear a helmet ... because well, I just didn’t. I saw the helmet as a nuisance with very little benefit to myself. Eventually, when bike races required helmets I bought one just for the competitions. Until one day about 30 years ago when the mother of a child I was seeing in the office said, “Dr. Wilkoff, you know as an influential member of this community, particularly its children, you should be wearing a helmet.” My wife had been badgering me for years but this woman’s courage to speak up embarrassed me into changing my ways.
For some, maybe many, people, wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic is a nuisance and an assault on their independence just as I viewed a bicycle helmet. Initially there was some information being circulated that any mask less robust than a N-95 had very little if any effect, either as protection or as way to decrease spread. I certainly had my doubts about the value of mask other than as a statement of solidarity. However, we are now learning that masks can serve an important role along with social distancing in a comprehensive community effort to minimize contagion.
In light of this new information, why are there are still people who won’t wear a mask? It may be that they are receiving their news filtered through a lens that discredits science. But, it is more likely the result of the same mindset that permeates the anti-vaccine faction that the common good is less important than personal freedom to follow their beliefs.
Do we have any tools at our disposal to increase the number of folks wearing masks? Based on our experience with attempts to convince those who are anti-vaccine, education will be ineffective in shifting the focus from personal freedom to a commitment to the welfare of the community at large. Shaming might be effective, but it runs the risk of igniting conflicts and further widening the gaps in our society. Some establishments have been effective in simply saying “no mask, no entry,” but this runs the same risk of creating friction depending on the community and the situation.
The ship may have already sailed on our best opportunity to achieve community compliance when the leaders of our national government have chosen to ignore their obligation to set an example by refusing to wear masks. I fear that the wedge has already been set and the widening of the gap between those who see their responsibility to the community at large and those who do not will continue to grow.
I am fortunate to live in a town whose residents look out for each other and have relied on local leaders to set an example in the absence of leadership on a national level.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.