Health and Healthcare Systems

From drones to Harry Potter memes: how countries convinced people to wear masks

Wearing a face mask, like this person, is no longer mandatory in England - however, other countries are still enforcing the rule

Different countries have used a variety of methods to encourage face mask wearing. Image: Unsplash/Usman Yousaf

Emma Batha
Journalist, Thomson Reuters Foundation News
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  • Wearing face masks is no longer mandatory for people in England, but they are still advised to wear them in crowded spaces.
  • With infections on the rise, some have argued that this measure has been lifted too soon.
  • From free masks to fines, there are a variety of measures across the world which countries have used to encourage the public to wear face masks.

People in England no longer have to wear masks after the country lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions - dubbed "freedom day".

But with infections rising again some say it is too early to ditch face coverings, which have been compulsory in indoor public spaces for the last year.

The government has said people should still wear masks in crowded areas, even though it is not a legal requirement.

How have other countries convinced people to wear masks?

From providing free masks to using drones to catch law-breakers, countries have employed an array of carrot and stick tactics to get people to mask up.


Many have introduced fines for those flouting mask rules. Some including Chile, Morocco, South Africa and Kuwait have also threatened jail, with Qatar bringing in terms of up to three years and fines of as much as $55,000.

Dubai has used drones with facial recognition software to spot people without masks, catching 518 in early 2021, according to local media.

In South Africa, private security officers in shopping malls and other public areas will escort rule-breakers to nearby mask stalls to buy a covering. Vendors sell masks - many in colourful African prints - on every street corner.

In Kenya, rights activists have accused police of beating people without masks and using the rules to extort bribes.

Amnesty International has accused Kenyan police of killing at least 21 people last year for violating curfew and mask rules.

Setting an example

From U.S. President Joe Biden to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, many leaders and politicians have made a point of scrupulously wearing masks in public.

At least two countries have fined their leaders for not wearing face coverings. Chile slapped its president with a $3,500 penalty after he posed for a maskless selfie with a bystander.

Thailand's prime minister was among the first to be fined when the country introduced a 6,000 baht ($183) penalty last year. But many thought it was a stunt to show Thais that no one was exempt.

Have you read?
a man can be seen wearing a facemask in India, where countries have struggled to enforce this rule
A man wearing a protective face mask reacts as colour powder is thrown towards him during Holi celebrations, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Chennai, India Image: REUTERS/P. Ravikumar

In India, where police have struggled to enforce face coverings, a video of a barefoot five-year-old boy in the city of Dharamshala urging passers-by in a crowded street to mask up went viral on social media this month.

Mumbai police have employed humour and Harry Potter to get their message across, creating jokey social media posts based on scenes from the boy wizard movies.

In Zimbabwe, celebrities have been setting an example along with politicians, while in Malawi artists are using songs to encourage mask wearing.

Scientists have also played a role.

England's chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Chris Whitty – who often appeared during daily televised briefings at the height of the pandemic - have said they will continue to wear masks beyond July 19.

Many countries have launched media campaigns on TV, radio and social media to encourage face coverings.

Across Africa, community health workers have gone door-to-door to spread the message.

Are mask rules unfair on the poor?

The Law Society of Kenya has filed a petition with the High Court against penalties which they say discriminate against people who cannot afford masks.

In Lebanon, the currency crisis has dramatically increased the impact of fines on the poor who earn in Lebanese pounds compared to the rich who earn in U.S. dollars – and who are less likely to be able to afford a mask in the first place.

Free masks

As the pandemic took hold last year, Turkey announced it would deliver free masks to almost all adults.

In many places businesses have given masks to staff, and schools have provided them to students.

Charities and civil society organisations in Africa have distributed masks to residents in informal settlements and daily wage workers including market vendors.

With elections looming in Zambia, politicians have given out masks as part of their campaign strategy.

Vietnamese dentist Tran Phuong Thao and her husband Tran Minh Hieu wearing protective masks, kiss at their wedding ceremony during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam
Vietnamese dentist Tran Phuong Thao and her husband Tran Minh Hieu wearing protective masks, kiss at their wedding ceremony. Image: REUTERS/Kham

Which countries have already abandoned masks?

China, Bhutan, Sweden, Hungary and New Zealand have told citizens they can remove their masks. Israel did so on June 15, but brought them back days later amid a rise in cases.

Most of the United Sates has dropped them for fully vaccinated people.

Will people continue to wear masks as vaccinations rise?

Surveys have shown widely different attitudes to mask wearing across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

In parts of Asia, masks were common long before COVID-19, making their adoption easier than in regions where the concept was alien.

Masks became prevalent during the SARS outbreak of 2002-2003. But many people in China, Japan and South Korea have continued to wear them during the flu season - as well as on days with bad air quality.

In Southeast Asia, too, many residents in big cities were already masking up before the pandemic struck to protect themselves against pollution.


How has the Forum navigated the global response to COVID-19?

An Ipsos MORI study of attitudes in nine countries this month showed most adults thought they would continue wearing a mask in public when vaccinated.

Mexicans and Brazilians were the most enthusiastic, despite their leaders' antipathy towards face coverings.

However, mask wearing in the United States - where some complained the rules were an infringement of their civil rights - has fallen away since restrictions eased.

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