Breda O’Brien: Mask-wearing is an act of solidarity

Face-coverings will be with us for some time. Be compassionate and use one

Thus far, the Government has relied mainly on goodwill rather than enforcement measures when it comes to Covid-19. If that were to change and non-compliance with, for example, mask wearing, results in a fine of €20, it will be little more than a slap on the wrist. Nonetheless, it would mark a change in policy.

Mask-wearing should be voluntary and an act of solidarity. Imposing new, lower fines is an acknowledgment this can no longer be taken for granted. One of the lingering effects of the dinner at the Station House Hotel is more public cynicism and less willingness to make sacrifices. Fatigue has also set in and some younger people feel invulnerable. While even a weak form of compulsion may have benefits in increasing compliance, it is no substitute for willing participation.

Mask-wearing is primarily about protecting others. A decent society should be willing to make sacrifices to protect others who are more vulnerable.

It is embarrassing to admit that I had to ring my local pharmacist recently to apologise for not wearing one. The pharmacist was very gracious, but I think she should have been harder on me.


I had worn one all day in school. In the car, I put the mask into a ziplock bag, removing it by the loops and trying to fold it inside out without touching the outside.

I then absentmindedly wandered into the pharmacy. Later, to my mortification, I realised that I had forgotten to replace the mask with one of the three fresh ones in my handbag.

My trip to my perspex-protected pharmacy may not be in the Nancy Pelosi territory of not wearing a mask while breaching hairdresser regulations and then blaming others for setting her up. But there should be a culture of politely reminding people. I would like to be reminded.

Some people regard being required to wear a mask as a major breach of civil liberties. In the US, it has become part of the culture wars along predictable battle lines.

Good citizenship

But even in less profoundly divided societies, perceived hypocrisy in public figures like Nancy Pelosi generates enormous resentment, as we learned from the dinner in Clifden. It makes it harder for both positive peer pressure and role modelling by influential figures to have an impact.

We Irish were an increasingly huggy society – now showing affection or respect means keeping our distance

This pandemic has changed the norms of good citizenship. We Irish were an increasingly huggy society – now showing affection or respect means keeping our distance. We smiled indulgently at Asians wearing masks. Now we realise they probably played a significant part in keeping numbers low in countries which adopted them after the first Sars outbreak.

Two things are more important than any level of fines – peer pressure to wear masks, ideally reusable ones, and intensive education on how to wear them properly.

While wearing a mask protects others more than it protects yourself, worn incorrectly it protects neither. It has to have sufficient layers in the first place to be effective, cover from below the chin almost to the eyes, and have no gaps at the side or over the nose.

People who wear them below the nose or even their chins are often not doing so deliberately. They might have lowered them when alone and simply forgotten to put them back. Some people cannot wear masks for valid reasons. A culture of giving and receiving reminders in a gentle fashion would help all of us.

A face-covering cannot be touched except by using the loops at the side but all of us touch our faces constantly. When masked we touch the outside of our masks, which if we then rub our eyes, negates a lot of the value of wearing one.  Unconscious habits are the hardest to change.

Visual cues

Masks are difficult to wear all day, as I have discovered since returning to school. When everyone is wearing one, so many valuable clues to mood and intention are missed. We all lipread to some extent, using visual cues to enhance understanding. People are not joking about being to hear better with spectacles on.

Masks form an important barrier against another lockdown

For the hard of hearing and those with other challenges, the sacrifice is even greater, which at a minimum demands slower and clearer enunciation along with eye contact from the rest of us.

Despite the difficulties, along with good hand hygiene, cough and sneeze etiquette, social distancing, and a robust testing and tracing regime, masks form a fragile but important barrier against another lockdown.

Disposable masks are also an environmental disaster. The Lancet had a fascinating article about how cloth masks for medical workers used to be sterilised and reused. Apparently, these well-designed and robust masks were just as effective as today’s disposable surgical masks. It was only in the 1960s, when disposable everything became the rage, that medical masks became part of our throwaway culture.

If every one of Ireland’s 3,664,387 adults uses an average of 200 disposable masks per year, that’s 732,877,400 masks going into landfill or our seas. That does not take into account gloves, wipes and other medical waste.

Mask-wearing will be with us for a long time to come. It should be an act of solidarity for ourselves and our planet.