Face masks have become a common item during the pandemic. You see them in supermarkets, restaurants and on public transport. Although using them before the outbreak of the coronavirus meant receiving strange looks, they are now the norm, especially in urban centres. This change in habits was reflected in a global survey conducted by the University of Maryland and Carnegie Mellon University in alliance with Facebook, which details that nearly nine out of ten Mexicans have adopted the frequent wearing of masks. The figure reported in Mexico is the third highest on the whole continent – only behind Puerto Rico (94.7%) and Chile (91.7%) – and it is week after week at the top of a sample that analyzes more of 100 countries and territories.
The Global Covid-19 Trends and Impact Survey, a daily survey of thousands of social media users that measures everything from vaccine acceptance to the prevalence of mental illness in the wake of the pandemic, shows that 88, 7% of Mexicans consulted regularly wear face masks, based on data collected on February 15, the latest available deadline. This figure is well above the percentages recorded in the United States, 64.5%, and in several European countries such as the United Kingdom (53%), Germany (77.1%) and France (80.9%). ). Spain, where the use of masks outdoors ceased to be compulsory last week, maintains figures above 86%. Italy, where it is compulsory to use them to go to concerts or take public transport, is the only country in Europe with a higher number than Mexico on this date: 89.3%.
Asia, where masks were already common among citizens who contracted respiratory illnesses, tops the list. Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan have percentages above 95% of the population and South Korea, Singapore and Thailand above 90%. The survey is also a sample of how countries like Denmark, which have already given up on covid-19, have stopped using them: only one in six Danes use it. The lifting of the latest protective measures in the Nordic country this month has resulted in a recent increase in coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths. Sweden, where the health authorities hit the headlines last year by questioning the effectiveness of wearing a mask, is the country that makes the least use of it: only 10% of respondents.
The case of Mexico attracts attention because of inconsistencies in government discourse on its use. “The use of face masks is of little or even no use,” Health Undersecretary Hugo López-Gatell said on April 27, 2020. The person in charge of managing the health crisis said stunned people by the statements, although his argument then for not betting much on this type of protection was that if the use was incorrect or intermittent, it was of little use. Despite this, by May the use of face masks had already been added as an official protective measure in the country. The statements, however, continued. “Certain sections of the population seem to persist in pointing fingers as if we were enemies of the mask,” he said on July 28, “that’s not the case.” The official asked people to “use their face masks” as an “auxiliary measure”, not compulsory, which complements washing hands with soap and water, healthy distancing and staying at home .
“The face mask helps prevent infecting others,” López-Gatell said in late October 2020, “if we think the face mask is a barrier to protect me, because I’m wearing it, no, it’s a false expectation. And he ended: “I’m not saying it doesn’t work, what I’m saying is: it works for what it works for and it doesn’t work for what it unfortunately doesn’t work for. “Last May, he specified: it was not that they were not used to avoid being infected, but that “they were useless”. To this was added the resistance of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, not to use it in his public appearances because the health authorities told him that it was not “essential”, which also resulted in criticism for the message he sent to the population as head of state. The president of Mexico has been infected twice with COVID-19.
“The majority of Mexicans and in particular the people of Mexico City have opted for the face mask as a preventive measure and part of the essential kit that you must have in the pandemic, despite the fact that the signs from the government and in particular from the president, they were different from the start,” says Alejandro Moreno, a professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and head of investigations at El Financiero. “In Public Opinion, we know that the population often follows the signals of leadership and in this case, it was not like that,” he adds.
In the national SARS-CoV-2 survey, conducted in 2020, the use of face masks was the most used prevention measure, with more than 70% use among approximately 1,000 Mexicans surveyed. These results are consistent with those of other surveys which indicate that heavy use has been the majority in the country. The specialized portal YouGov detailed a first change: in March 2020, only 20% used face masks and at the end of April, they already represented two thirds of the population. During the same period, confidence in the authorities’ handling of the pandemic also increased significantly: it rose from 33% to 54%, although it then fell again during the first half of the year. This year.
Moreno, who has published surveys on attitudes towards the pandemic in the capital over the past two years, points out that the frequent use of face masks has been maintained and has responded to the information available on the contagion: it goes up when a wave appears and it goes down when the cases give way. It is a thermometer of how the population perceives the state of the epidemic in its environment, especially since the second wave was recorded at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Since May 2020 it has not gone down in below 75% frequent use, according to the University of Maryland.
García points out that the adoption of the use of face masks can be explained by the imitation of certain social models, by the imposition of their use in certain spaces, or by the belief that it is useful. “You have to take these kinds of results calmly, I would put them in quotation marks”, specifies the specialist. The academic is cautious and sees proper use, the type of face mask used (with varying levels of effectiveness) and the oversupply of pirated and uncertified protective gear as necessary nuances.
Moreno points out that surveys generally have limitations: design, scope and methodology. Having a reagent that limits yes or no responses eliminates some gray areas, such as people who don’t use it because they don’t leave their homes. There is also a social desirability bias which, according to the Public Opinion expert, manifests itself in two ways: it is more accepted to answer that it is used than that it is not used, and it is socially more acceptable to use it than not to use it. this.
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“Not everyone in every country or territory has a Facebook account or doesn’t use it regularly. This is especially true in countries with low internet penetration,” say the authors of the survey on possible selection bias, while assuring that the necessary considerations are taken to obtain reliable results. They are only an approximation, despite racking up 4.4 million user responses since April 2020 in Mexico alone.
“The face mask is within everyone’s reach”, explains García: it is cheap and involves a protective measure that does not depend on others, such as distancing and avoiding crowds. Moreno points out, for example, that the vast majority of people said their health depended more on self-care than government action, at least before the advent of vaccines. “We’ve seen a population during the pandemic mobilizing on their own by putting on face masks, washing their hands more, using gel, and all of that has been more about how people perceive the threat than signals sent by the government, although what the authorities did also mattered,” says the political scientist. An anti-mask movement hasn’t really taken root in Mexico.
Mexico’s results are consistent with those of several Latin American countries. No Central American country has figures below 80%, nor any Andean country. Brazil and Paraguay are the lowest cases, with 78.8% and 72.2%. García comments that its impact on mitigation is not only reflected in terms of covid, but also in a lower incidence of other respiratory illnesses. “Several European countries and American states are easing their use, which means that their use is going to be reduced, but in our case it may be a little more widespread and it will surely have to do with the behavior of the pandemic in each region”, he adds.
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