Masks in the Time of Coronavirus: We Need to Overcome Mask Phobia

Masks in the Time of Coronavirus


Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch

The president doesn’t want to wear a mask.

Do you? Really, deep down, do you? Have you bought or made masks? Are you or your family wearing them when you go outside?

If the answers to any of these questions are no (If I’m honest, I haven’t been keen), we have to ask “Why?”

Why is it that, even when the nation’s top medical professionals recommend wearing cloth masks when we go out for our and others’ safety, we are reluctant to wear them (assuming we have them).

As communicators we are in the behavior business. Whether it’s to encourage others to consider products or services or to help employees get through this crisis.

As a rule, we can be good at our jobs but not so good at understanding why we do what we do as individuals. As I have written in the past, unless we seek to understand the drivers of our own actions, and ultimately their consequences, it is hard to change them.

The coronavirus pandemic highlights in sharp relief the significant gap between what we are being asked to do and what many are doing.

As the individual who should be setting an example for the country, the president’s refusal to wear a mask both reflects the attitude of many and provides an excuse not to take this basic step.

Without leadership from the top, we need leadership from the bottom. We all need to set an example.

It’s worth thinking about other examples of behavioral change to help us think differently about wearing masks.

How you would respond if someone walked into your house and smoked a cigarette in front of your children? Forty years ago, few would have batted an eye, but I’ll venture today, instinctively we’d tell someone to take it outside because we understand the risks of secondhand smoke.

When I was growing up, wearing a seat belt was considered uncool. Despite years of evidence that this saves our lives, that we would even have debate around wearing them underscores the clash between ego and vanity-driven behavior versus our rational minds.

While wearing seat belts is about self-preservation, not drinking and driving adds the dimension of not killing others, and yet people still drive drunk.

Behavioral change is often slow. It requires a conscious evaluation that the benefits of change outweigh the consequences of doing nothing. And, change is very hard. If it were easy, we would not be having these conversations.

There’s a dimension with masks that needs to be understood so our rational brains can win out. Changing our behaviors to benefit “others” is generally much harder than when the change is for ourselves.



In Japan – where I lived for seven years – individual behaviors are much more focused on benefiting society as a whole. The wearing of masks is normal. It has a social and individual purpose. Vast numbers of Japanese suffer hay fever from the pollen of non-indigenous pine trees, but the Japanese also wear masks to protect from others’ potential illnesses as well as to protect others from theirs. In fact, if you have a cold it is basic manners to wear a mask.

Japan serves as an example that there’s no fundamental reason why we should not wear masks. In that society no one judges you negatively when you wear one. In fact, there’s little doubt that right now you are seen as doing something important for society.

That’s how we need to look at masks in the time of COVID-19.

Wearing a mask will protect others and ultimately you. Although cloth masks are not a prophylactic or guarantee you will not get the virus, like seat belts they will reduce the risk of spread and contagion if used correctly.

To overcome mask phobia, there’s no doubt that we also need to frame this in very personal terms.  If we all wear masks in public places, it will be far less likely for you or your family to get sick or in the worst case, die.

If you are looking for a clear benefit to overcome ego or vanity, this should be reason enough.



As communicators, we need to lead and set an example. I encourage others to join me in posting pictures to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #maskedcommunicators, or to come up with something even better!

About the Author: Simon Erskine Locke is the founder & CEO of CommunicationsMatch™, which offers search tools and services to help companies find, shortlist, and hire agencies, consultants, and freelancers, and help agencies and professionals generate new business leads. During the coronavirus pandemic, CommunicationsMatch is leveraging its resources to help connect struggling not-for-profits and companies with Communications Volunteers willing to give their time to help others at no cost or discounted services. It is offering access to MDLIVE as well as additional time and discounts on membership plans. Find out more at the CommunicationsMatch Insights Blog.