Drones and Harry Potter memes: How to persuade people to wear masks

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 July 2021 08:09 GMT

People, some wearing protective face masks, are seen on a platform at Waterloo underground station, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain, July 4, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

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Masks are no longer mandatory in England but the government wants people to continue wearing them. How have other countries ensured mass mask wearing?

By Emma Batha

LONDON, July 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - People in England no longer have to wear masks after the country lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions on Monday - dubbed "freedom day".

But with infections rising again some say it is too early to ditch face coverings, which have been compulsory in indoor public spaces for the last year.

The government has said people should still wear masks in crowded areas, even though it is not a legal requirement.

How have other countries convinced people to wear masks?

From providing free masks to using drones to catch law-breakers, countries have employed an array of carrot and stick tactics to get people to mask up.

Penalties

Many have introduced fines for those flouting mask rules. Some including Chile, Morocco, South Africa and Kuwait have also threatened jail, with Qatar bringing in terms of up to three years and fines of as much as $55,000. 

Dubai has used drones with facial recognition software to spot people without masks, catching 518 in early 2021, according to local media.

In South Africa, private security officers in shopping malls and other public areas will escort rule-breakers to nearby mask stalls to buy a covering. Vendors sell masks - many in colourful African prints - on every street corner.

In Kenya, rights activists have accused police of beating people without masks and using the rules to extort bribes.

Amnesty International has accused Kenyan police of killing at least 21 people last year for violating curfew and mask rules.

Setting an example

From U.S. President Joe Biden to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, many leaders and politicians have made a point of scrupulously wearing masks in public.

At least two countries have fined their leaders for not wearing face coverings. Chile slapped its president with a $3,500 penalty after he posed for a maskless selfie with a bystander.

Thailand's prime minister was among the first to be fined when the country introduced a 6,000 baht ($183) penalty last year. But many thought it was a stunt to show Thais that no one was exempt.

A man wearing a protective face mask reacts as colour powder is thrown towards him during Holi celebrations, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Chennai, India, March 29, 2021. REUTERS/P. Ravikumar

In India, where police have struggled to enforce face coverings, a video of a barefoot five-year-old boy in the city of Dharamshala urging passers-by in a crowded street to mask up went viral on social media this month.

Mumbai police have employed humour and Harry Potter to get their message across, creating jokey social media posts based on scenes from the boy wizard movies.

In Zimbabwe, celebrities have been setting an example along with politicians, while in Malawi artists are using songs to encourage mask wearing.

Scientists have also played a role.

England's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty – who often appeared during daily televised briefings at the height of the pandemic - have said they will continue to wear masks beyond July 19.

Many countries have launched media campaigns on TV, radio and social media to encourage face coverings.

Across Africa, community health workers have gone door-to-door to spread the message.

Are mask rules unfair on the poor?

The Law Society of Kenya has filed a petition with the High Court against penalties which they say discriminate against people who cannot afford masks.

In Lebanon, the currency crisis has dramatically increased the impact of fines on the poor who earn in Lebanese pounds compared to the rich who earn in U.S. dollars – and who are less likely to be able to afford a mask in the first place.

Free masks

As the pandemic took hold last year, Turkey announced it would deliver free masks to almost all adults.

In many places businesses have given masks to staff, and schools have provided them to students.

Charities and civil society organisations in Africa have distributed masks to residents in informal settlements and daily wage workers including market vendors.

With elections looming in Zambia, politicians have given out masks as part of their campaign strategy.

Vietnamese dentist Tran Phuong Thao and her husband Tran Minh Hieu wearing protective masks, kiss at their wedding ceremony during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam January 28, 2021. REUTERS/Kham

Which countries have already abandoned masks?

China, Bhutan, Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand have told citizens they can remove their masks. Israel did so on June 15, but brought them back days later amid a rise in cases.

Most of the United Sates has dropped them for fully vaccinated people.

Will people continue to wear masks as vaccinations rise?

Surveys have shown widely different attitudes to mask wearing across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

In parts of Asia, masks were common long before COVID-19, making their adoption easier than in regions where the concept was alien.

Masks became prevalent during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. But many people in China, Japan and South Korea have continued to wear them during the flu season - as well as on days with bad air quality.

In Southeast Asia, too, many residents in big cities were already masking up before the pandemic struck to protect themselves against pollution.

An Ipsos MORI study of attitudes in nine countries this month showed most adults thought they would continue wearing a mask in public when vaccinated.

Mexicans and Brazilians were the most enthusiastic, despite their leaders' antipathy towards face coverings.

However, mask wearing in the United States - where some complained the rules were an infringement of their civil rights - has fallen away since restrictions eased.

(Additional reporting by Rina Chandran, Kim Harrisberg, Nita Bhalla, Christine Murray, Maya Gebeily, Timour Azhari and Matt Lavietes; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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