How data and news content inform safety decisions – sometimes

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Data tells us when to protect ourselves

Below is an account of how COVID-19 escalated and how we moved into lockdown. I used the example of the use of face-masks to frame how recent historical events developed. However, what was missing from the original account was how data and news helps me decide when to wear masks. Some additional sentences about how data influenced the decision to wear masks have been added.


Masks in South East Asia

When I left my fieldsite in Chiang Mai Northern Thailand, at the end of January – this was a planned return which wasn’t exacerbated by the virus. The virus has already taken hold in China – but everywhere else – even in Bangkok – where I stayed a couple of days to catch up with friends, it was still a news story about something happening – somewhere else.

That said the pollution in Bangkok and Chiang Mai was already unseasonably high – so I was wearing a mask every day. I would wear a mask if the smog was visible, but would also check the AQI index on my phone daily to see what level the invisible – but most harmful PM 2.5 particles – were at.

In Chiang Mai, I was wearing my face-mask as an I walked around the city if the AQI index was high, and in Bangkok, I just knew when to wear a mask. I wore one every time I got on the back of a scooter. If I forgot, I soon put it on, because the pollution was so yellow and thick, it stung my eyes and made my whole face gritty. I was wearing masks all the time in Thailand. And after SARS and other viruses, and also because of pollution generally – wearing simple cloth masks, or even elaborate pink tartan masks (see photo from this year) – are regular daily occurrences, in Thailand and in other parts of Asia.

Fast forward to the middle of March. People seemed to be reading the news coming out of Italy with interest and – for some, with a little anxiety – but life went a lot as usual. It was at this stage that I started to filter out news stories and consume news – though data consumption. I looked at Italy’s daily infection figures and also the death rate. At this stage, there was increasing chatter about people working from home, and these chats were mainly excitable ones about the novelty of remote working.

My husband and I found the news chilling – we were temporarily stranded in a remote part of Northern Laos during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. This was my first direct encounter with a squad of officials in hazmat suits (see photo from 2009 in Laos). This happened abruptly and without warning, as we’d travelled to Northern Laos by river, had very little cell phone coverage, and no data – so were unaware of the fast-developing situation.

This time after tracking the Italy news and data, we immediately started wearing our masks (tartan but military-grade), we felt especially vulnerable on the Piccadilly Line. The difference in reactions between wearing masks on the Tube vs wearing them on the BTS in Bangkok was weird. To say we got withering looks would be an understatement.


London reactions to masks

On Friday the 19th March, we had both been working from home for a week, and we were one day away from lockdown – half of the people we knew were fully aware this was going to happen – and a lot of people hadn’t seemed to have fully processed what was happening just yet. That was only two weeks ago – but it seems like another era. By this time, I was reading news articles on my phone again, and I couldn’t cope with all the data points for all the different countries. I had enough data to make me stubbornly wear a mask in all public situations.

We decided to make one last tube journey from Brixton to Hammersmith – so he could pick up a keyboard, mouse, and laptop stand. I have a background in ergonomics, and I’d been nagging everyone to get ready for weeks of remote working and get their workstations set up for good posture. On the way in Tube lines were still ram-packed. A pregnant woman with a baby on board badge sat opposite us. She looks uncommonly terrified at: being on a rammed carriage; of being coughed over by people standing over her, and it was clear that our masks scared her even more. I wanted to reach out a comfort her – but you just don’t do that on a crowded tube – especially wearing a mask – even now the scene plays over in my head uncomfortably.

That evening we did something we hadn’t done for many years – we watched the evening BBC News on television, this was difficult because we didn’t have an aerial or cable, so we had to look for the Live News feature on the TV iPlayer App. I’d become worn out looking through all the data, and all the COVID-19 branded news boxes at the top of my mobile screen. We’d heard via friends of friends that the government was going to announce lockdown, so we wanted to listen to and watch the announcement being given. I realised I’d had enough of fingertip mediated, personalised news.

Last week we continued wearing masks: on Clapham High Street; in shops, wherever we were likely to come across people. On Tuesday 24th (well into lockdown) we got verbal abuse for wearing them – “think that’ going to make a *#(£ difference”. It was invasive, but partly understandable because there was conflicting information being given out about masks. By this time, I’d restarted a practice that I gave up a year ago – of checking a wide variety of news sources – I always advise other to do this but don’t have time to always do it myself. As the week wore on, we saw a few more masks being worn. Staff in the big brand Local grocery store had taken it on themselves to wear masks. I chatted to them – one mask to another – and they explained how anxious they were about getting the virus. They told me they had read about the high infections for key workers – so felt it was a good idea to wear them – even though corporate HR advised against using masks.

On Thursday last week, someone who was also triggered by me wearing a mask – lunged into my space as if to say – ‘if you think the face-mask makes you feel safe – you won’t feel safe now’. It wasn’t a physical attack, but very different to social distancing protocol being broken by a panting jogger skim you from behind (that’s a whole other post). This was someone intentionally and aggressively breaking into my carefully managed, socially distanced space.

It will be interesting to see how the biographies of the mask and of news and data consumption continues.