Throughout the covid pandemic, there has been a constant concern that the public would be the weak point in the response—either unwilling or psychologically unable to abide by the measures necessary to control the spread of infection. 

Sometimes, this concern has been expressed in specific (and racist) cultural terms. The freedom-loving British public, according to the government and others, would not wear the measures accepted by more conformist Asian societies. [1] In particular, we would not wear masks as (say) the Chinese are accustomed to do. 

There is an irony in this claim, and also a profound misunderstanding of cultural practices as rooted in some timeless essence. For there is nothing traditional about Chinese mask wearing. Indeed, the imposition of masks was a deliberate political intervention by the Chinese Communist Party after 1949 as a symbolic break with tradition and a sign of modernity. [2] Equally, in the UK, the supposedly ingrained “cultural” aversion to masks very quickly evaporated once mask-wearing measures were introduced.

In June 2020, YouGov published an article which highlighted the “British population’s unique reluctance to wear face masks:” only 21% of UK respondents indicated that they were covering their faces in public. In July 2020, masks became obligatory in shops and supermarkets in England. In August 2020, the ONS “Coronavirus and the social impacts on Britain” survey reported that 96% of adults were wearing masks.

At other times, concerns about public fragility have been expressed as a disdain for human psychology in general, our supposed inability to act rationally, especially in a crisis, and to put up with restrictions for any length of time. Most notoriously the notion of “behavioural fatigue” was used to delay lockdown in March 2020. 

Once again, there is an irony to this claim which was hotly disputed by psychologists and other behavioural scientists as having no scientific status and which was soon debunked by the remarkable levels of resilience during the eventual lockdown—even in the face of considerable adversity. [3,4]

However, “fatigue” is one of those zombie ideas which has the ability to come back and bother us, no matter how many times it is killed off. Even as levels of adherence (and particularly of mask-wearing) stay stubbornly high, I have been asked by …….


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