Behind the Mask
Politics, Risk Perception And Social Interaction Influence Covid-19 Safety Practices
By Sara Withrow
Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic started impacting the U.S. in March 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended everyone wear a face covering, or a mask, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, not all Americans complied.
In light of the growing number of COVID-19-related deaths — nearly 600,000 as of May 2021 — it was important to identify the underlying motivations that trigger protective behaviors, said Feng Hao, an assistant professor of sociology at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus.
Collaborating with a geographer from the University of Alabama and an expert in education from Ringling College of Art and Design on a multi-level, interdisciplinary study, Hao determined that where a person lives makes a difference in how they respond to the pandemic. Specifically, the political climate and the COVID-19 death rate of a person’s home state influence their mask wearing practices.
Threat Proximity = Greater Response
An environmental sociologist known for his research on the human causes and socioeconomic costs of climate change, Hao was not surprised.
“There are many similarities between climate change and the pandemic. They are all threats to our well-being, and both issues have been politicized,” he said.
Hao found construal level theory, a theory he’s used to study public response to climate change, apropos to this study, as well. The theory holds that the psychological distance between a person and a perceived risk influences their perceptions and subsequent behavior. For example, those who experience more symptoms of climate change, such as rising sea levels and dramatic weather events, perceive it as a greater threat, he said.
Research: USF Sarasota-Manatee Campus
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As lead author, Hao describes the findings in “Understanding the Influence of Contextual Factors and Individual Social Capital on American Public Mask Wearing in Response to COVID 19.”
A key finding from the survey was that people living in states with unified Democratic Party control, where there was a Democratic majority in the house and senate and a Democratic governor, were more likely to wear a mask, Hao said.
This was true for three Democratic-controlled states, California, Colorado and New York, where more than 90% of respondents said they wear a mask.
By comparison, 87% of respondents from all 10 states said they wear a mask.
Hao suspects the polarized U.S. political climate – intensified by a partisan mainstream media – helped politicize the virus.
“There were different messages being told by politicians and the media, based on their political leanings,” he said.
“There is a clear party divide,” added Hao, citing a previous study he coauthored: “Confidence in Political Leaders Can Slant Risk Perceptions in a Highly Polarized Environment,” Social Science & Medicine (2020). “Democrats are more likely to perceive the [COVID-19] risk than Republicans.”
Both studies point to the need to divorce public health issues like the pandemic from politics, Hao said. “If we can treat COVID-19 as a public health issue, we will be more equipped to address it.”
Strength in Numbers
Of the individual-level factors assessed in the 10-state study, one finding was of particular interest to Hao.
“We found that people with stronger social networks (social capital) and more frequent interaction with family and friends, were more likely to wear a mask,” he said.
The finding supports earlier research related to the H1N1/Swine Flu outbreak in 2009-10, which also found a positive relationship between social capital and individual response to the virus.
“When people interact with each other, they gather information and have more opportunities to learn about the pandemic in an objective way,” Hao said. “They also tend to care about each other and show mutual support. This leads to their behavior of wearing a mask – not only to prevent getting COVID themselves, but also to prevent it from infecting the people around them.”
Hao said the study’s interdisciplinary approach added to its significance and its potential to inform future virus-related policy. “The pandemic is a very complicated issue and it really requires the knowledge of different disciplines. In this case, it’s an example of how experts in sociology, geography and education came together to study this problem,” he said.
In another article published in May 2021, “Understanding the Effects of Individual and State-Level Factors on American Public Response to COVID-19” in the American Journal of Health Promotion, Hao has expanded the research to a nationwide sample of all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Findings show that people from states with more COVID-19 cases, mandatory face mask policies, and liberal governments are more likely to respond to the pandemic while people from states whose economies have recovered closer to the pre-pandemic level are less likely to do so.