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In malls and public places, men can often be seen without masks. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: The reason why a majority of men are found to be noncompliant with the facial mask rule as a precaution against COVID-19, could have its roots in gender biases and an inability to process the safety-for-others message that the mask symbolises, say health-care specialists and clinical psychologists.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic began, wearing a facial mask has been a bone of contention for men.

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First, there was a confusion about wearing masks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) at the beginning of this year issued a confusing advisory, saying that face masks were not effective. Later on, when the virus was found to be air-borne, they retracted, saying it was mandatory for everyone to wear a face mask along with following the other protocols related to hand hygiene and social distancing. The protocols are now being followed to a T by most women, but one notices the facial masks slipping more often from men’s faces!

Look around and you will find in malls and public places, men are the main culprits violating this safety measure and sometimes wearing it wrongly — below the nose just covering the mouth. In the name-and-shame gallery published by the UAE government, most violators are men with only a handful of women shown to be in the wrong. The fine for not wearing a mask in public is Dh3,000. So why do men want to flout the norm?

Studies conducted in the United States and United Kingdom indicate that most men feel a mask emasculates them, is not cool and that nothing serious is going to happen to them if they don’t wear one. That is one of the reasons why we find throughout the world, males have a higher fatality rate with COVID 19.

Are men courting disaster?

According to Aarushi Bajaj, Dubai-based clinical psychologist, the fault lies with men not comprehending the message. “There are several issues involved here. One is of basic compliance. Traditionally, women are more compliant with rules and laws and tend to follow them, no questions asked. Also women are generally quick in grasping abstract issues like combating an invisible virus with a mask whereas men are more programmed to following manuals about working of concrete things.”

Bajaj said men need a simpler and louder message that the mask is meant to prevent transmission of infection and if they wear a mask in public places, they will keep their families safer by stopping the spread of the disease. “So far, men were given to understand that the mask would protect them from catching the virus. So they felt it made them appear weak, vulnerable and fearful of the disease, when they wanted the world to believe in their invincibility and fearlessness.”

Toxic masculinity

The mask as a clothing of confinement or cover also was being interpreted in the ‘toxic masculinity’ context as an emasculating symbol that was making them appear less macho.

The American Psychology Association (APA) says that not wearing a mask for men displayed their risk-taking capability and their sense of adventure.

Right message is the key

Bajaj added: “If men are told that the mask is an extension of their image of a provider and protector of their family, they will be more responsible and compliant. I think we need to take a step back and educate them on this.”

Dr Safdar Zabeth, general practitioner from Medcare Medical Centre Discovery Gardens, has noticed that men generally tend to be careless about the mask protocol. Dr Hazed said: “There is a general disregard for good health practises among men. Men pay less attention to their health, smoke more, or eat less nutritious food. I have also seen that men generally wait longer before seeing a doctor. But it is important for men to be more cautious and mindful about their health as clinically it has been noticed that the female immune system is stronger than the male. The ratio of mortality of females to males is about one-third to two-thirds. I try to tell this to the patients who come to me.”

Dr Zabeth constantly tries to educate his male patients, telling them that facemasks, when fitted properly, effectively block the forward movement of particles expelled from a cough or sneeze, preventing disease transmission. Even if the facemasks are ill-fitting, they are still able to interrupt the transmission.

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What needs to be done?

According to Bajaj, advertising and marketing companies need to work in aligning the image of the ‘good man’ with the man who chooses to wear a mask. “For better compliance and motivation, there is a need for celebrity endorsements of masks, creating brand consciousness. The clothing companies have done this for eons. A man is made to feel that if he chooses a certain article of clothing, he is closer to the image of the good or ideal man who is a provider and protector of his family and leader of the community. Masks are here to stay and perhaps the mask manufacturers may need to rework this message in their advertising campaign if they intend to market masks as a long-standing item of mandatory clothing in society.”