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Wear a Mask
by Bhargavi Chatterjea Bhattacharyya

I was reading the newspaper. Suddenly the headlines caught my eye.  The newspaper had a news feature about wearing masks during the coronavirus pandemic. Most people were not wearing masks. They came up with lots of excuses.  Some said that they were feeling too hot if they had masks on their faces. Others found the mask uncomfortable. Still others felt that there is no point in wearing a mask. After all, the mask is cheap and the virus is deadly. How can a cheap mask fight a deadly foe? So, why bother?

After reading this, I wrote a letter to the editor. I said that by focusing on people who are not wearing a mask you are inadvertently reinforcing the population norm. Basically it means that a lot of people are not wearing masks, I may as well not wear it. Contrast this with normative norms, where people do things that they are expected to do, like wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.

I was somewhat surprised when I received a call from the editor. He agreed with what I said, but he cannot find anybody whose behaviour will shift the population norm. “Can you suggest a model whose behaviour people might copy?” he asked.

I told him about a little girl at a birthday party. Nobody there had the mask on, except this girl. Normally we take cues from the environment. It is very unusual for a child to wear a mask when neither her parents, nor her friends are wearing one. I said that she should be hailed as a hero, someone who wears a mask because that is expected of her. The editor again agreed with me, but she said the children often act according to their whim. This story will not convince the adults to change their behaviour.

I said, “Ok, then you can take the case of my friend. He is a doctor. He wakes up every morning, puts on the mask and sits in front of his laptop to see patients virtually.”

“Really! Just to act as a model for his patients?” asked the editor.

“Yes,” I said.

“But Why? In teleconsultation, patients are not in front of him. Why does he need a mask?”

“Well, he puts on the mask so that he doesn't have to shave!”