By Jane Millichip

Mask-wearing has been a contentious issue for months. For some, the new UK guidelines are too little too late. Others point to inconsistencies – obligatory masking-up in shops versus flagrant puckering-up in pubs and restaurants. A few fools on the libertarian fringe even claim it is their basic civil right to spray infected droplets over another human (not a tenet with which I am familiar, nor one I condone).

Epidemiologists and statisticians are unequivocal. Whilst the virus is in circulation, it’s never too late to wear a mask, as they significantly reduce infection rates. Experiments with high speed video show that we emit 100s of droplets between 20-500 micrometres in normal speech, yet a simple cloth mask will prevent most from reaching the person to whom you are speaking. An increasing bank of ‘real world’ data also points to the benefits of mask-wearing, including a study of 198 countries, which found those with cultural norms or government policies favouring mask-wearing had lower death rates.

According to the global health research centre, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, more than 33,000 deaths could be avoided in the US by the end of September, if 95% of people wear masks in public.

But mask-wearing alone, is not enough. I implore you to think about the way you wear them. (And no, I’m not referring to how you position them on your face – although covering your nose and mouth is preferable to the ubiquitous under-the-chin swagger.)

There is a subtle, but important, difference between those who wear a mask to protect themselves, and those who don the cloth for the public benefit.

I believe we should all adopt the mindset that we wear a mask to protect others. The fact is, cloth masks are most effective as ‘source control’, preventing large droplets from your mouth evaporating into small droplets that travel further. This is vital in reducing transmission now that we know both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission are commonplace – i.e. many carriers are not aware they are contagious. Equally, simple cloth masks are better than N95 masks (the ones with valves) that do not protect those around you. The one-way valve protects the wearer, but it releases unfiltered air (including droplets) when they exhale.

There is another important reason to don the cloth for the sake of others. If you go about your business trying not to spread the virus rather than trying not to catch it, you simply behave better in public. You are more likely to give others the space they need to pass safely in the supermarket, step aside on the pavement, or just defer to your fellow human in a manner that feels altogether more community minded.

Humans are extraordinarily sensitive to each other’s facial expression, and when deprived of the full and bare-faced glory of our pre-Covid world, I find myself searching for emotion in the eyes of a masked stranger. Sometimes, I observe furtive and anxious eye movements and furrowed brows, accompanied by a somewhat self-righteous refusal to stand aside. Other times, I make direct eye-contact, see smiling eyes, and we both make room for one another. I know which I prefer – do you?

I wear a mask to protect you. And I am grateful to all of you who are trying to protect me. Don the cloth for the sake of others and we will all be better off.