At the start of the pandemic, much of the Western world followed a similar playbook for tackling Covid-19.
Spikes in transmission were met with lockdowns; international travel was heavily restricted; and though domestic constraints frequently proved controversial, hygiene measures like social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing were strongly encouraged — if not legally mandated. But those days are behind us. Pandemic management now differs widely from country to country — with the face mask just one example of the world’s increasingly fractured approach to Covid-19.
The science behind masks is fairly clear, and has only become more robust over the course of the pandemic. Studies have shown that masks significantly decrease the chances of transmitting coronavirus, and some types of masks can help prevent their wearers from catching the virus. Yet debates still rage in multiple countries over their use, and some regions have recently removed mandates that people wear them in crowded spaces. “Masks remain a symbol of a divided society — between those who feel we have restricted too much and those who feel we have not intervened enough during the pandemic,” Simon Williams, a senior lecturer on Covid-19 behaviors at Swansea University in Wales, told CNN.
With the prospect of another winter pandemic brewing, some countries are grappling with calls to return to mask use. But they face resistance from people fatigued by endless mixed messaging — and many experts fear that in countries where rules have been relaxed, reimposing mandates could be complicated. The first days of the pandemic saw early hesitance over the use of face masks from governments and the World Health Organization (WHO), amid fears that a rush for masks would leave frontline workers without enough protective equipment. But that as the world learned more about Covid-19, their use became commonplace by the middle of 2020.