My personal specialty is emergency management and dealing with disasters. The current nonsensical debate on the wearing of protective face coverings, a.k.a. face masks, illustrates many disaster principles that when not followed, leads to calamity.
The first duty of an emergency manager is to detect hazards and, when appropriate, issue a warning to the general population. The problem with the coronavirus hazard is that back in January and February of this year, experts were dealing with an entirely new virus and its characteristics were not well known or understood. Early in the response the wearing of masks was not considered an appropriate measure for everyday citizens to take to protect themselves.
This has become a divisive information point for some people who are looking for reasons to not follow the current advice to wear a mask. When that guidance “flip-flopped” to encouraging the wearing of a mask, I knew there would be trouble ahead.
Mixed messages always spell doom for public warnings. The hardest part of issuing a warning is not detecting the hazard or broadcasting a warning. Instead, the final step in the warning sequence is getting people to heed the warning, and take the action being advised. Tornadoes — seek shelter; flooding — don’t drive in flooded areas; this pandemic — everyone wear a mask!
The real problem today with the need for everyone to wear a mask is that mixed messages continue. In some political circles, it has become a badge of pride to not wear a mask. Imagine a dam break and one government official is telling people to evacuate, and another government person is telling people to stay where they are.
I think about another protective measure, such as mandating the wearing of a motorcycle helmet. In that case, the laws of states differ. In either case, the reason for wearing a helmet while on a motorcycle is to protect the rider from head injuries. That is vastly different from wearing a face mask during a pandemic, which is to protect others from the person wearing the mask. Those who choose not to wear a mask are thumbing their nose at others, saying, “You don’t count. I get to do what I want to do, regardless of the harm I do to others.” I guess these are the same people who also run red lights.
Wearing a face mask equates to embracing disaster mitigation. Disaster mitigation involves taking steps to either prevent or lessen the damage from a particular hazard. Seismically retrofitting a bridge to keep it from falling in an earthquake is an example of mitigation. Wearing a seatbelt when riding in a car is another mitigation step that most people take today. Will wearing a seatbelt guarantee that you will survive every possible car crash? No, but wearing a seatbelt is your best option for survival. But again, the benefit comes to the person who wears a seatbelt.
The impact of disaster mitigation improves greatly when you have a community accepting the measures being recommended. This is especially true with a city, county or state embracing the idea of wearing a mask to lessen a disease.
Sometimes in disasters we feel totally overwhelmed by the events of the day. We watch the news horrified with the impacts of a disaster, and many people feel motivated to want to help in some form or fashion. Today with this pandemic, everyone — absolutely everyone — can make an individual contribution to the disaster response by simply wearing a mask.
Last, I’ll briefly mention the police powers that duly elected officials have to enforce public health measures that protect a community. For all the “law and order” types who demand adherence to laws, it is a governor, mandating the wearing of masks, who is exercising his or her police powers for the good of society. So buck up and wear a mask!
Eric Holdeman is director of the Center for Regional Disaster Resilience for the Pacific Northwest Economic Region.