The Victorian government announced on Tuesday it would provide over the next few weeks, in a bid to limit the transmission of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses.
Research shows that , or at least reduce the number of virus particles entering someone’s system.
So why aren’t more Australians wearing them?
Why are people returning to pre-COVID behaviours?
The number of people wearing face masks during Australia’s latest wave of COVID-19 is much lower than is needed to bring down high levels of transmission, according to the director of the Burnet Institute, Professor Brendan Crabb.
“It’s hard to be precise, but it’s probably not much better than 20 to 25 per cent in most places in Melbourne, at best,” he told this week.
UNSW infectious disease expert Associate Professor Holly Seale said that’s because many people are returning to their pre-pandemic behaviours.
“We didn’t have a culture of wearing masks during winters or respiratory infection periods,” she told SBS News.
“[People are] going back to what is known to them, what they’re used to doing, and, I suppose without any kind of reminders or restrictions around it, what else is nudging them to wear a product?”
The choices people make about whether to wear a mask or not could also be influenced by misunderstandings surrounding the “perceived value” of public health measures and the likelihood of reinfection, she said.
While those who contracted the virus earlier in the pandemic were believed to be immune from reinfection for several months, .
“There’s been this suggestion that we’ve moved back to a space where people are doing the public health measures for themselves, as opposed to it being for the best for the good of the community,” Associate Professor Seale said.
“Whereas in 2021, maybe not too many people had actually had a case of COVID or maybe knew someone who has had COVID, realistically now, probably every second person either experienced it personally or had someone in their close family who’s gone through COVID.
“That changes our mindsets about whether or not we need to take up and use a mask, or when we do we need to get a vaccine, and using the other public health strategies.”
The drop-off in mask use seems to be happening most among the youngest and oldest members of society, Associate Professor Seale said.
“We do want to make sure we’re nudging people to go and get their boosters, and we’re nudging them to be conscious of wearing that mask.”
Should mask mandates be brought back?
Research from the Burnet Institute shows the mask mandate introduced during Melbourne’s second COVID-19 wave in July 2020 “turned an exponential increase in community transmission into an exponential decrease, almost overnight”.
During the latest Omicron wave, Australian government and public health officials have strongly encouraged people to wear face masks in high-risk settings and when they can’t socially distance, but stopped short of reimposing mandates.
Professor Crabb has called for them to reconsider their decision, suggesting mandating masks in some settings could encourage more people to wear them outside of those areas, too.
“We love a mandate, but only when we’ve bought into the reason for the mandate. And with COVID, we have not bought into that,” he said.
“Until the prime minister and the premiers and chief ministers get up … I don’t think we will change the minds of Australians.”
But Associate Professor Seale said there doesn’t seem to be “an appetite” among governments for restrictions around masks to return.
“I think they’re having to look at this more holistically than just one kind of upsurge in cases, and around one public health practice,” she said.
“We can roll out a whole new mass media campaign, but is it going to have any effect right now, or is the effect limited, and should the money be spent elsewhere?
“There’s only so much money they continue to plug into this – it is about getting people to get to that third and fourth dose, and should that be where the priority is, and we look for other means of trying to remind people to wear a mask?”
How can people be convinced to wear a face mask?
Associate Professor Seale said Victoria’s free masks initiative could help to encourage more people to change their behaviour in the short term.
“It’s one of the best things we could do,” she said.
“Especially if you’re seeing others within your vicinity putting on the mask straight away, then that kind of nudges you also then to do that same practice and takes away that kind of feeling that you’re the only one in this space still wearing the product, which is where it’s starting to kind of inch towards.”
But it won’t necessarily translate to a long-term change in behaviours, Associate Professor Seale said.
“Maybe that’s all we need right now over the next couple of weeks, while we just battled through this final kind of surge in the current variant,” she said.
Ultimately, Associate Professor Seale said the most effective way of increasing the uptake of masks is through peer-to-peer messaging.
“We’ve found in our research that family members are playing a role in medicine, so if you do have those within your inner-circle, who have chronic health conditions or who are older adults, just reminding them about when and why to use a mask,” she said.
“You know, saying to them ‘look, there’s lots of COVID still going around’, that ‘this is a variant that we haven’t necessarily seen for a longer period, so that means, even if you’ve had COVID, it doesn’t mean you’re protected right now,’ and especially to those who haven’t received a third or fourth dose that they could be vulnerable to these severer outcomes.”