Mask user-fatigued? Don’t be, hang in there!
In this Yuletide season, many children and adults alike will most likely despite all the prevailing circumstances sport on new clothes and shoes. And many more will not. However, whether you’re wearing a new shoe or an old one, they all come with sounds. An evergreen Yoruba nursery rhyme captures the essence of these sounds. Bàtà mi á dún ko ko kà, Bàtà mi á dún ko ko kà, Ti’mba ka we mi, Bàtà mi á dún ko ko kà. This means if you read your book your shoes will give a resounding sound. In an English nursery rhyme, the shoe also plays an inanimate protagonist. It goes thus: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she didn’t know what to do.
All over the world shoes are worn and are highly symbolic. In some cultures, they are thrown at weddings and then in 2008, there was the famous shoe- throwing episode at George W. Bush while he was visiting Baghdad. An aggrieved journalist threw a pair of shoes at the then president in protest of his invasion on Iraq. Even when Ethiopian Oylmpic marathon gold medalist; Abebe Bikila ran in the 1960 Olympics barefoot, he wore his shoes soon after the race.
Whichever side the shoe is on, what is important is that all over the world we’ve been wearing shoes. Shoes are not a part of our birth repertoire. However, soon after we are born, we wear socks, then shoes and everyday of our lives we wear shoes. Even for those who never wore shoes until they became adults, they soon begin to wear it every day. The commonality in shoe-wearing is that as soon as we get home, we are quick to take it off. As inconvenient as the footwear has been during our eight and sometimes twelve-hour sojourn at our work places, we still manage to leave them on our feet. Whether the weather is stuffy, hot or cold, the shoes remain on our feet till we get home. Even if we remove them in our offices, we replace them with slippers, just to protect our feet from germs and sharp objects. The purpose of shoes is to protect our feet. The purpose of masks is to protect us from infectious virus particles.
Masks on the other hand are a different matter. Understandably, no one wants to wear masks except they have to. And we were not birthed to wear masks. In this pandemic era, masks are of a necessity. Unlike the shoes we wear everyday and have been used to from as far as our memory can tell us, masks are a totally different impasse. Wearing shoes is second nature to most people. We don’t have to look too far before we see sharp objects, excreta, extruded phlegm and many more unpleasant sites that our shoes protect us from. We don’t need to be persuaded to wear our shoes because we can see the perils of not wearing them all around us. However, being told to wear masks to protect yourself and others around you because of a pathogen you can’t see or maybe you don’t even believe exists takes more than a little persuasion.
Let’s be clear; wearing of masks does not prevent one from getting the disease but it reduces the chances of getting a higher viral load than if one did not wear a mask. A higher viral load can quicken the infectiousness of the disease. The reduction in viral load gets lower when you and all those around you are wearing masks.
The pandemic or COVID-19 fatigue is a burnout that comes from too much of do’s and don’ts. Don’t go out in crowds. Don’t shake hands, don’t hug, don’t go to parties, churches, mosques, funerals, birthdays or other social events that bring people together and serves as a release from stress. Do wear masks, wash hands frequently under running water, keep respiratory hygiene, follow the social distancing signs in buildings, and do stay 1.5 meters apart.
We have the mask user-fatigue. Even wearing the masks has its own rules; don’t touch your mask after wearing, cover your nose and mouth with the mask, don’t touch your face and touch your mask, don’t reuse your masks and don’t touch the front of your mask when removing it. Anyone that has reached his/her limit to these do’s and don’ts from the pandemic is extraordinarily fatigued. In addition, user fatigued persons may experience mental, physical, psychological and emotional symptoms. For others, the fatigue could be from endless virtual meetings, constant exposure to pandemic stressors from the social media on the surreal, exponential increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases. Further, the fatigue could be from grief of not being able to be by a sick, loved one, or anger and sense of helplessness from postponed weddings, sudden loss of employment, uncertain travel plans or axed holidays. It could just be from the economic downturn, the sense of isolation from friends, family, despondent news and conspiracy theories around COVID-19 wherever you turn.
With fatigue comes a lackadaisical attitude to wearing masks and keeping of other COVID-19 protocols. The risk of user fatigue in mask wearing or in keeping any of the COVID-19 protocols is stopping the preventive protocols in their entirety and putting oneself and others at risk. Human beings are social by nature. Most crying babies stop crying when they are carried. We all need a hug. When you miss someone over a long distance, you communicate through letters, WhatsApp or other social media messages, emails and phone calls but nothing can replace face-to face contact. Nothing. Humans want contact and need to feel connected.
If we’re told to wear masks for a definitive time period, it could be easy to persuade ourselves. As it is, the light at the tunnel seems so far away. There’s no definitive time or date that anyone can say we would stop wearing the face masks or do away with any of the other protocols. Even the 94-year-old monarch of Britain was not able to spend Christmas at Sandringham due to social distancing guidelines.
How can we strike a balance between our user- fatigueness and still keep the COVID-19 protocols all the while minimizing the spread of the virus? What are some of the other reasons for not wearing masks and for not keeping all the other COVID-19 protocols? One reason why people may not wear mask is their own sense of perceived susceptibility to getting infected. Some have a religious faith that they cannot get infected and some believe that COVID-19 is a hoax because they do not know anyone who has had the disease. Unknown to these set of people, when those that they know get the disease, they do not broadcast the news. They are more likely to take medication, not self-isolate and freely mingle among their unsuspecting peers.
Further, the opening of markets, religious worship centers, schools and free movement of vehicles might be taken as a signal that all is okay. All is not okay. Not mask wearing also has a peer group effect. When you are in a vehicle or a building or on a street and you’re the only one wearing a surgical mask, you stand out like a sore thumb. Or worse still, if you’re the only one wearing a mask and the mask you’re wearing is a K-95 one, you will so stand out that you just might wordlessly remove your mask. This is peer pressure although they may not be your peers! But it is what it is.
Another major reason is that in Nigeria, the number of confirmed cases had been down for some months and hitherto several isolation centers had been closed. I wrote about the reasons for the low numbers in a previous Guardian article titled, Low COVID-19 numbers; Contexual questions, facts. The sudden uptick of rising numbers coinciding with the advent of regulatory passage of some vaccines have spurned another conspiracy theory that the confirmed cases are fictitious and have been manipulated to present a case for Nigeria to acquire the COVID-19 vaccines. The numbers are actually rising. We only need to observe the non-closure of our international borders despite at least three, highly transmissible mutant strains of the virus in South Africa and the United Kingdom. Let’s not shy away from looking at our worship centers or our markets. We should not forget the manipulative COVID-19 test results for those arriving from international travel or for those going outside the country.
To strike a balance between mask wearing and leading as close to a normal life as possible, we can do a few things to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. We should wear a breathable mask and take it off when we are alone but put it back on when people are approaching. We should also take it off after a few hours and breathe normally for a few, short minutes. The mask should not be too tight around our faces. Apart from mask protocols, we should reduce the news we imbibe about COVID-19. Let’s engage in safe activities that will not put us at risk of infection. Get a dose of sunlight every day. Take fresh fruits daily and keep up your daily recommendations for vitamins C and D. Take daily recommended doses of zinc. Develop waking up at a regular time every day. Stay connected to loved ones through phone calls and other means. It pays to get a routine in one’s daily activities. We should take a down time on Zoom and other video call meetings. Sometimes, the activities discussed via Zoom could have equally succeeded in email exchanges or a few phone calls. This is not a time to fall under peer pressure and not wear your mask because you are the only one wearing one. We must all act responsibly to protect one another. Importantly, wear a mask, whether it’s surgical or non-surgical, N-95, textile grade, reusable or disposable, just wear a mask! If we can wear shoes all day, we can wear a mask.
Obilade, a medical doctor and an Associate Professor of Public Health, wrote from Abuja.