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Do You Need to Wear That Mask?


People are reflected on a volunteer's sunglasses outside a closed neighborhood alley following the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing, Sunday, March 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
Do You Need to Wear That Mask?
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As concerns over the new coronavirus spread around the world, people have to make basic health decisions. They are wondering how worried they should be about getting infected and what they should do about it.

Some decision can have unexpected results however. For example, because of fears over getting infected, large numbers of people have bought masks to cover their faces. This led United States Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams to write this message on Twitter: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS”

He noted that masks are not effective in protecting the general public. The masks should be kept available for those who really need them. He added that “if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Different levels of concern not unusual

It is hard to know just how concerned people should be. Someone who lives near an area with many reported cases of coronavirus may be right to be more concerned than someone who does not.

But experts note that people do not only make decisions based on calculations.There are also emotional and psychological influences that play a part.

David Ropeik is an expert on risk who retired from Harvard University in Massachusetts. He said, “Emotions are the filters through which we see facts.”

Paul Slovic is a psychology professor at the University of Oregon. He said people’s perception of risk can increase so that it becomes different from the advice of medical officials.

For example, less is known about the new coronavirus than the seasonal flu, which is blamed for far more deaths each year. But the new coronavirus is not fully understood and seems to be difficult to control.

Slovic said that because “there is no vaccine that can prevent it” and it spreads easily, news of the disease hurts our personal sense of control. He said our sense of risk increases when we do not feel like we know what to do to protect ourselves.

At the same time, the information that people are getting from the news and social media does not ease their concerns, Slovic said. He noted that reports place attention on people getting sick and dying and not on less serious cases.

To make matters worse, “everybody is telling everybody about it,” Ropeik said. This increases the perceived risk.

Vincent Covello is director of the Center for Risk Communication, a business advisory group. He has a list of 17 psychological influences that people consider when they think about risk. For example, he said people worry more when they do not trust the officials or agencies in charge.

People also get more concerned about involuntary things, like exposure to an infected person than voluntary ones, like smoking or spending too much time in the sun.

Ropeik said people can reduce their risk of overreacting by not spreading news of every little development. “Don’t just share the scary parts,” he advised.

Finally, Ropeik said it is good idea to take a break from the 24-hour news. “Log off, put your phone down, pick up a book,” he said.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Malcolm Ritter reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

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Words in This Story

mask –n. something that covers part or all of the face

calculation –n. careful thought or planning through a process

filter –n. a device or process that removes something unwanted

perception –n. the way a person thinks about or understands something

involuntary –adj. not done by choice

scary –adj. causing fear

log off –n. to suspend a connection with a computer network

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