Nine out of ten Mexicans use face masks, amoung the most in the world

Face masks have become a common object during the pandemic. They are seen in supermarkets, restaurants, and public transport. Although using them before the outbreak of the coronavirus meant receiving some strange looks, now they are the norm, especially in urban centers. This change in habits has been reflected in a world survey carried out by the University of Maryland and Carnegie Mellon University in alliance with Facebook, which details that almost nine out of ten Mexicans have adopted the frequent use of masks. The figure reported in Mexico is the third-largest in the entire 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 than 100 countries and territories.

The Global Covid-19 Trends and Impact Survey, a daily survey of thousands of social network users that measures aspects ranging from the acceptance of vaccines to the prevalence of mental health illnesses as a result of the pandemic, shows that 88.7% of the Mexicans consulted wear face masks on a regular basis, based on data collected on February 15, the latest available cutoff. The figure is well above the percentages registered in the United States, 64.5%, and 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 mandatory last week, maintains numbers above 86%. Italy, where it is mandatory to use them to go to concerts or board public transport, is the only country in Europe that has a higher number than Mexico for that date: 89.3%.

Asia, where masks were already common among citizens who contracted respiratory illnesses, tops the list. Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan register 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 last protective measures in the Nordic country this month has translated into recent increases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from coronavirus. Sweden, where health authorities made headlines last year by questioning the effectiveness of mask use, is the country with the least frequent use: only 10% of those surveyed.

The case of Mexico draws attention due to the inconsistencies in the government discourse on its use. “Using face masks is of poor or even no use,” said the Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, on April 27, 2020. The person in charge of managing the health crisis 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 not much use. Despite this, by May the use of face masks had already been added as an official protection measure in the country. The statements, however, continued. “Some segment of the population seems to persist in the idea of ​​pointing as if we are enemies of the mask,” he said on July 28, “it is not the case.” The official asked the population to “use their face masks” as an “auxiliary measure”, not mandatory, that complements handwashing with soap and water, healthy distance, and staying home.

“The face mask helps to prevent from infecting others,” López-Gatell said at the end of October 2020, “if we believe that the face mask is a barrier to protect me, because I am wearing it, no, that is a false expectation. And he finished: “I’m not saying it doesn’t work, what I say is: it works for what it works for and it doesn’t work for what it, unfortunately, doesn’t work for.” Last May, he clarified: it is not that they did not serve to avoid getting infected, but that “they were of little use”. 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 “indispensable”, which also translated into 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 inhabitants 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 of the Government and in particular of the president they were different from the beginning”, affirms Alejandro Moreno, professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico and head of surveys 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 Survey on SARS-CoV-2, carried out in 2020, the use of face masks was the most used prevention measure, with more than 70% use among around 1,000 Mexicans interviewed. These results are consistent with those of other surveys that indicate that massive use has been the majority in the country. The specialized portal YouGov detailed an initial change: in March 2020 only 20% used face masks and by the end of April they were already two-thirds of the population. In that same period, confidence in the handling of the pandemic by the authorities also increased significantly: it went from 33% to 54%, although it later fell again in the first half of that year.

Moreno, who has published surveys on attitudes towards the pandemic in the capital in the last two years, points out that the frequent use of face masks has been maintained and has responded to the information that there is about contagion: it goes up when a wave appears and it goes down when cases give ground. It is a thermometer of how the population perceives the state of the epidemic in their environment, especially since the second wave was registered at the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021. Since May 2020 it has not dropped below 75% of 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 patterns, by the imposition of their use in some spaces, or by the conviction that it is useful. “You have to take these types of results calmly, I would put them in quotation marks,” says the specialist. The academic is cautious and puts proper use, the type of face mask used (with different levels of effectiveness), and the oversupply of pirated and uncertified protective equipment as necessary nuances.

Moreno emphasizes that surveys usually have limitations: design, scope, and methodology. Having a reagent that limits the answers to yes or no eliminates certain gray areas, such as people who do not use it because they do not leave their homes. There is also a social desirability bias, which according to the Public Opinion expert occurs 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.

“Not everyone in every country or territory has a Facebook account or uses it regularly. This is especially true in countries with low internet penetration”, say the authors of the survey on possible selection bias, although they assure that the necessary considerations are made to obtain reliable results. They are just an approximation, despite the fact that they have accumulated 4.4 million user responses since April 2020 in Mexico alone.

“The face mask is within everyone’s reach,” says García: it is cheap and implies a protection measure that does not depend on others, such as distancing and avoiding crowds. Moreno points out, for example, that the vast majority of people claimed that their health depended more on personal care than on government measures, at least before the vaccines arrived. “We have seen a population during the pandemic mobilized on their own initiative when putting on face masks, washing their hands more, using gel, and all of that has depended more on how people perceive the threat than on the signals sent by the Government, although what the authorities did also mattered”, says the political scientist. An anti- mask movement has not really taken hold in Mexico.

Mexico’s results are in line with several Latin American countries. No Central American country registers figures below 80%, nor does 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 diseases. “Several European countries and US states are relaxing 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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