Covid-19

The social meaning of masks

by Cheryl McEwan, Durham University, UK

Governments and public health experts around the world are attempting to stem transmission of the Covid-19 virus. This has required drastic action in many countries, including confining people to homes and completely closing down public spaces. Many countries have also made wearing face masks mandatory in public spaces, with fines for those refusing to wear them. While evidence suggests that social responses to the pandemic are significant, there is currently little understanding about the social significance and cultural meaning of mask-wearing in different political, cultural and geographical contexts, or of why people choose to wear or not wear face masks.

Prophylactic face masks were first worn during the 1910-11 Manchurian plague and 1918 Spanish flu outbreaks. In Japan, mask-wearing is considered a courtesy to other people. In other Asian countries, such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, mask-wearing has become relatively common because of air pollution and previous experience with pandemics like SARS. However, it was only after the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) outbreak that the face mask ‘went global’. Increasing levels of air pollution in large cities have also led to more people wearing masks in India, Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Europe. However, in most European and other western countries, mask-wearing has not been common and, to encourage people to wear them, political leaders have needed to tackle stigma and challenge ideas that masks are a threat to personal freedoms. Despite previously urging the public not to wear masks to ensure enough supplies for healthcare workers, in May 2020 the UK government began advising that masks be worn on public transport and in enclosed spaces. This was to counter widespread concerns about re-entering public spaces following the easing of lockdown restrictions.

There has been an extensive and inconclusive scientific debate on the effectiveness of face masks in preventing person-to-person transmission of air-borne viruses like Covid-19. Face masks inhibit what the sociologist Erving Goffman referred to as the ‘performance of face work’, which he argued demonstrates ‘willingness to abide by the ground rules of social interaction’. In other words, face-to-face interaction and communication is made much more difficult when masks are worn. For this reason, people not accustomed to wearing masks are now being advised on how to smile with their eyes. Face masks also act as a significant communication barrier for those with disabilities related to sight, hearing and speech. They can be uncomfortable and impractical, restricting breathing and clarity of speech, and steaming up spectacles. That masks are being worn in response to Covid-19 despite discomfort, as well as scientific disagreement about their effectiveness in preventing infection, suggests that social responses to disease are rarely influenced by scientific evidence alone or evidence of complete effectiveness. It also suggests the influence of powerful cultural ideas, as well as specific pressures and other influences. However, what these influences might be in persuading people to wear masks is poorly understood. It seems that masks can perform an important secondary function in terms of public morale, meeting a psychological need to feel safe, or symbolising public-spiritedness. However, they can also create stigma, as in the case of respirator masks used in the treatment of tuberculosis in South Africa or of mask wearing by Chinese students in the USA in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Understanding these different influences and public responses to them is therefore important.

What is clear is that the Covid-19 pandemic has had a number of unanticipated effects, including the fuelling of enormous demand for face masks. The outbreak of the pandemic led to a global scramble for surgical masks, which suddenly became valuable commodities. Some countries were accused of hoarding masks or using them as geopolitical bargaining chips. Cottage industries have responded to shortages of masks and people have improvised by making their own. Face masks have become simultaneously fashion items and, in the case of male political leaders who have refused to wear them, a focus for debates about ‘toxic mask-ulinity’.  

Governments and public health experts around the world are likely to continue to recommend the wearing of face masks to control Covid-19 transmission and to counter public concerns about the pandemic. In this context, there is a need for continued scrutiny of public policy, discourse and debate about emergency responses to Covid-19 to ensure that these remain humane. Two important spaces in which this scrutiny is taking place, especially among those who are marginalized or less able to claim a voice, are street art and digital public art. In cities around the world, as public spaces were closed down in order to prevent the pandemic spreading, graffiti artists, street artists and muralists began to take over these spaces and create images of mask-wearing, using their art forms to express beauty, support and dissent. As journalists in one UK newspaper reported:

‘[A]rtists have commented on the tense situation by depicting people in face masks – a now-iconic image of the global crisis.’

The case of HIV-AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa has demonstrated that artists are in a unique position to raise awareness of pandemics and inspire debate and dialogue around issues of fear and stigma relating to disease. As geographers we can provide important insights into the importance of art and artists during the Covid-19 crisis. This includes creating a better understanding of the role of art in public debate, community building, resilience and recovery during the pandemic. We can examine the potential of art in communicating public health messages through urban and social media spaces at a time when traditional spaces for art have closed down. We can explore the role of art in articulating people’s dissent, and their deeply held fears and anxieties concerning mask-wearing. And, by analysing the depiction of mask-wearing in visual arts in public spaces, geographers can play an important role in creating a better understanding of what face masks mean to people in different places and what challenges there are relating to people’s willingness to wear them in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.


About the author: Cheryl McEwan is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Durham. She has recently been awarded a small Covid-19 Special Research Grant by the British Academy to explore “The meaning of masks in the Covid-19 pandemic: a comparative study of depictions of mask-wearing in public visual arts in sub-Saharan Africa and the UK” with collaborators in Uganda and the UK.

Suggested Further Reading

Dynel M (2020) ‘COVID-19 memes going viral: On the multiple multimodal voices behind face masks’ Discourse & Society. November doi:10.1177/0957926520970385

Lynteris C (2018) ‘Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment’ Medical Anthropology, 37(6), 442-457, doi: 10.1080/01459740.2017.1423072

Nabulime L and McEwan C (2011) ‘Art as social practice: transforming lives using sculpture in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention in Uganda’ Cultural Geographies 18(3), 275-296 doi: 10.1177/1474474010377548

Shun Ying Sin, M. (2016) ‘Masking fears: SARS and the politics of public health in China’ Critical Public Health, 26(1), 88-98, doi: 10.1080/09581596.2014.923815

Füller, H. (2016), Pandemic cities: biopolitical effects of changing infection control in post‐SARS Hong Kong. Geographical Journal https://doi.org/10.1111/geoj.12179

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