Many Poles have not followed the obligation to wear masks and, even among those who do, half do not wear them correctly, an academic study has found. The author argues that this could have contributed to current record levels of new infections, and has blamed politicians for setting a bad example.
The research was led Maria Gańczak, a professor of epidemiology and head of the department of infectious diseases at the University of Zielona Góra. Over three weeks in May, her observers recorded whether and how members of the public were wearing masks.
They gathered a sample of 2,400 people – all of whom were unaware they were being observed – across 13 of Poland’s 16 provinces. The observations were made in outdoor and indoor public spaces, with face covering compulsory in both at the time (under rules introduced on 16 April and lifted on 30 May).
Despite this requirement, the researchers found that, in early May, one quarter of the public were not wearing masks. That figure rose to one third by the end of the month, Gańczak told TOK FM.
The study found that women “very clearly” wore masks more often than men, and the elderly more than the young, says Gańczak. There was a difference in mask usage of 30 percentage points between people aged over 60 and teenagers.
During each of the three weeks of observation, the proportion of women wearing masks was 79%, 73% and 71%, while for men the figures were 68%, 59% and 60%, reports TVN24. Gańczak suggests this could be because women are generally more likely to obey the law whereas men are “risk takers”.
Moreover, even among those who were wearing masks, half did so incorrectly. Many covered only their mouth and not their nose, while in some cases both nose and mouth were uncovered, with the person putting the mask on their chin.
“From an epidemiological point of view, this completely does not protect against the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Gańczak told TOK FM.
Among the masks observed by the researchers, two thirds were made of cloth. Another quarter were surgical or medical masks, and only very rarely were people wearing masks with filters.
Bad example from politicians
In her interview with TOK FM, Gańczak also criticised the attitude of leading officials towards masks, saying that it could be responsible for the current rise of coronavirus infections to record levels.
She noted that, in the early stages of the pandemic, politicians did not take the use of masks seriously. The health minister, Łukasz Szumowski, argued that they did not provide protection, while Jarosław Pinkas, Poland’s chief sanitary officer, joked that people could use bras as masks.
Later, the authorities changed their position, making masks compulsory. However, even then, Gańczak notes, many government figures did not follow their own rules.
The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, was recently pictured not wearing a mask in a shop, as is required. Previously, his own social media team posted photos of him holding a meeting at which distancing rules were not followed, for which a government spokesman later apologised.
Szumowski dla @DGPrawna o tym, że premier nie nosi maseczki: Czy premier miałby ją nosić np. na wolnym powietrzu, podczas któregoś ze służbowych wyjazdów? Zostałby zaraz oskarżony o nadmierną demonstrację.
Premier podczas weekendowej wizyty w sklepie: pic.twitter.com/Ii3kDvTDzR
— Patryk Słowik (@PatrykSlowik) August 4, 2020
During the recent presidential election campaign, President Andrzej Duda and leading opposition candidates regularly held large rallies at which face-covering and distancing requirements were not followed, with mask-less candidates often mixing with the crowd.
Since winning re-election, Duda has continued to be seen having close interactions with members of the public in outdoor settings without a mask. He faced criticism earlier this week for saying that, while he encourages people to wear masks outside, “not everyone can, not everyone likes them”.
The president revealed that Szumowski and Pinkas had asked him to wear a mask during his swearing in for a second term yesterday, in order to set a good example. But he decided not to, telling Interia today: “I don’t like wearing a mask. It does not make life easier or more pleasant.”
Poland's presidential election candidates are no longer even pretending to stick to social distancing rules pic.twitter.com/qmZqVBb2hA
— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) June 2, 2020
“Looking at our leading politicians, we could see that they did not comply with the restrictions, and they still don’t,” Gańczak told TOK FM. “Today I saw a picture of a meeting of the president with voters in Kraków . People in the crowd did not wear masks, including the president.”
Speaking to TVN, Gańczak also warned that the government’s plan to reopen schools to pupils at the start of the academic year on 1 September was a big risk.
Following the recent rise in new coronavirus infections, the Polish government has this week announced new measures to slow the spread. This has included reintroducing the obligation to wear masks in both outdoor and indoor spaces in areas designated as coronavirus “red zones”.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.