Benefits of Mask Wearing Lost if Government Messaging is Not Clear: Study

Rob Hicks

January 10, 2022

People interpret the advice to wear a mask as permission to go about their usual daily lives, say researchers from the University of Leeds and the University of Bangladesh, who’s study Face mask mandates and risk compensation: an analysis of mobility data during the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh is published in the journal BMJ Global Health.

The researchers warn that when announcing and publicising messages about mask wearing - and other measures to reduce COVID-19 cases - governments need to be careful if policies are to have the best chance of being fully effective. They said that the benefits of correctly worn face-masks reducing the spread of COVID-19 could be diminished, or lost entirely, if the messaging around compulsory mask wearing is not clear and the rules are not properly implemented. 

The study involved an analysis of Google community mobility data collected by mobile phones and other Android devices, and followed the gradual shut down of Bangladesh from mid-March 2020 in response to the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases there.

The data collected provided aggregated generic location information with people recorded as to where they were - at home, at work, at a grocery or pharmacy, at a recreation or retail setting, at a transport hub, or in a park.

Signal to Return to Normal

On July 21, 2020 mandatory mask-wearing outside of the home was imposed in Bangladesh. Following this announcement, the researchers identified that there was an increase in the number of journeys made outside of the home.

Rather than recorded journeys being to a place of work, the journeys were to other sites such as parks and shops, with people spending much less time at home. The study found that activity at specific locations significantly increased in the 7 days following the introduction of compulsory mask wearing. An increase in activity was noted in:

  • Transport hubs – 5.9%

  • Retail and recreation areas – 5.8%

  • Parks – 4.2%

  • Workplaces – 2.6%

Dr Zia Wadud, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds’s School of Chemical and Process Engineering, who led the study, said that "In Bangladesh, the evidence indicated that people may have regarded the announcement that they would be required to wear a mask as a signal that it would enable them to return to a normal way of life as long as they adhered to the rules over face coverings."

'Risk Compensation' Effects

The researchers explained how their study highlights a behaviour known as 'risk compensation', where a person believes an intervention makes them safer so they adopt a riskier behaviour – examples of this being drivers and motor cyclists may drive faster if they wear a seat belt or wear a crash helmet.

Dr Sheikh Mokhlesur Rahman, co-author from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology, added: "The research shows that the mandatory requirement for masks could result in a risk compensation effect, which could reduce the intended effectiveness of wearing masks. It is important that policymakers recognise this possibility to better design their COVID-19 mitigation measures."

Of concern was that linked to the rise in journeys outside of the home, an associated rise in cases of COVID-19 infection was also identified.

The researchers comment that although the study involved data collected from Bangladesh, their findings apply more broadly, implying that other countries should take note.

"People needed to be told - and reminded constantly - that mask wearing was an additional measure alongside limiting travel and close interaction with others." Said Dr Zia Wadud.

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