Graphic: WHO. Not cool enough to catch on, say medics.

Encouraging the public to see face masks as a social practice, which they can use to express their cultural background or their personality, could encourage more people to use them regularly, say researchers writing in The British Medical Journal (BMJ).

“Wearing face coverings is being rapidly introduced as a public health intervention in countries with no cultural tradition of doing so,” they write.

Many public facing infographics on face coverings describe the initial steps as follows: “clean your hands before touching the mask, inspect the mask for damage or if dirty, adjust the mask to your face without leaving gaps on the side.”

Given that social practices are deeply held and passionately defended, uptake of face coverings is likely to be advanced by downplaying the medical narrative about “standards,” “donning and doffing,” “decontamination,” and “risk.”

For successful uptake, face coverings need to be grounded in the social and cultural realities of affected communities, but also work to shape new norms.

Face coverings are clothing or accessories, they explain, and wearing one is a social practice—a behavior that has a particular meaning in a particular society.

For instance, face coverings have been associated with assuming a different identity (worn by a superhero), avoiding recognition and persecution (worn by a criminal), to exhibit modesty (expected of women in some cultures), having an infectious disease (worn by a patient), for protection (against pollution, dust, pollen) and for cultural ceremonies (worn for celebration).

The symbolic meaning of a face covering to a particular society will also be influenced by social expectations, for example what we expect a shop assistant, bus driver, or nurse to be wearing.

In some Asian countries, face coverings have been widely used in public in previous epidemics, which is why uptake during COVID-19 has been swift and near universal compared to some other countries like the United States, where there is no such tradition and masks are associated only with armed robbers.

Photo: https://www.facebook.com/prettycoolfacemasks/

The ability to personalize cloth face coverings also offers an opportunity to improve uptake through desirability as an accessory, they add.

But some people have got out ahead of the BMJ and on the Web site PrettyCoolFaceMasks  many ingenious maskies show off their creations.

Cool, huh?