COVID-19 Diary: Why Aren’t the English Wearing Masks?

The advert on an elevator door at Washington’s Dulles airport read: “Say Hi And Smile At Your Fellow Travelers. It’s Good for Everyone.” That’s easier said than done when you are wearing a mask – and there are no other travelers in sight! I am used to flying a lot. Because of work, sometimes several times a month. I am seldom anxious. There have been the odd anxiety-inducing trips, mainly into war-torn countries. A flight on a wave-hopping small turboprop from Malta into Libya’s Tripoli wasn’t much fun. But I can confide that I was unusually anxious last week taking a flight to London. In fact, the flight turned out to be one of the smoothest transatlantic trips I have taken in 40 years — mainly thanks to the lack of ‘fellow travelers.’ The normally bustling Dulles airport was empty. There were just three other international flights departing the airport on the night I flew out. There were only four other people checking in at the same time as me. Security was a breeze. The normally bustling Dulles Airport was forlorn. “There were just three other international flights departing the airport on the night I flew out.” (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)But there was something forlorn about the airport. Only two small stores were open. The lounges were shuttered. And the few other passengers around were keen to steer very clear of each other. I didn’t have to worry about space between me and others on the Airbus — there were only 30 to 40 passengers on the no-frills flight. Oh, the joy of being able to stretch out. Shouting over masks“We were shouted at for wearing masks. This is why the situation in the U.S. is so dire,” Alex Crawford of Britain’s Sky News explained in a recent broadcast. British broadcasters have been reporting obsessively on the resistance to wearing masks in America. The BBC asked in a recent report: “Why is there a U.S. backlash to masks?” “Many protesters across the States have been pictured defying social distancing guidance without masks or face coverings,” reported Ritu Prasad. “This is in marked contrast to other countries,” she added. And would those counties include Britain — or, to be more precise, England, where Sky News and the BBC are headquartered? Not at all, as I discovered, after arriving in London last week. I had been expecting, when I left Heathrow Airport, to see a masked England. But masks were less in evidence than in the United States. I’d flown from West Virginia, a state not noted for a warm embrace of face-coverings. The governor, Jim Justice, only recently made masks compulsory for shoppers. But even before the gubernatorial instruction, I’d estimate around 70 percent used their own initiative and covered up. Most local stores long ago asked customers to wear masks. But at a large Sainsbury’s supermarket in an affluent suburb of Britain’s capital, only a handful of shoppers had face-coverings. And just one store assistant who might as well not have bothered, since she was only half-covering her mouth and her nose not all.  On Friday, mask-wearing for shoppers became mandatory in England’s stores; Scotland ordered everyone to cover up weeks ago. Whether the English do observe the mask rule will be interesting to watch. Supermarket chains Sainsbury’s and Asda have announced they won’t enforce the rule — and police forces say they have insufficient manpower. Not much different from US A recent report by London University’s Imperial College and the YouGov pollsters noted: “Britons are uniquely reluctant to wear face masks, given the level of fear around COVID-19 and the number of cases in the country.” They found just 37 percent of people were wearing masks before the mask order came into effect. I asked a Sainsbury’s employee on the eve of the new rule whether she planned to wear a mask. “I am not sure. Anyway I can’t,” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “Cos I don’t like them,” she replied. On Saturday, after the rule came into effect, the locals appeared to be observing the mask rule in the picture-postcard Berkshire village of Cookham, along the River Thames. “We are a well-behaved lot around here,” said Sandy, a barista at Mr. Cooper’s Coffee House. But she told me she’d seen earlier voluble disagreements about wearing masks outside a Tesco supermarket in Maidenhead, a nearby town. Mask-wearing has also divided Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cabinet. And that has not helped to get the message across that face-coverings can prevent transmission of the coronavirus, as a series of studies have shown. For those interested, some links here:This stretch of the Thames was described by Jerome K. Jerome, a nineteenth century English writer, as “the sweetest stretch of all the river.” (Jamie Dettmer/VOA)Hardly surprisingly, people are escaping to the countryside as well as flocking to England’s rivers, trying to leave the coronavirus muddle behind them.The Thames flows by Cookham and Maidenhead. Jerome K. Jerome, a 19th century English writer, described this part of the Thames as “the sweetest stretch of all the river.” In his book “Three Men in a Boat,” a sentimental account of a two-week boating trip with friends, the author complains, though, that, “as a rule on the river, the wind is always dead against you whatever way you go.” “It is against you in the morning, when you start for a day’s trip, and you pull a long distance, thinking how easy it will be to come back with the sail. Then, after tea, the wind veers round, and you have to pull hard in its teeth all the way home.” That could serve as a metaphor for the coronavirus pandemic. But then, as Jerome adds: “This world is only a probation, and man was born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”