Promoting mask-wearing during the COVID-19 pandemic: A policymaker’s guide

Executive Summary

Use of face masks and cloth face coverings has been shown to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Along with handwashing and physical distancing, wearing a mask is one of three key measures that people can take to decrease their own risk of contracting COVID-19 and decrease the chances of infecting someone else.
This document draws on scientific evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic and from prior public health research on behaviour change, with the purpose of empowering African Union Member States to promote widespread adoption of masks in the general population. This document complements existing Africa CDC technical guidance on the community use of face masks.

Key findings

  1. There is scientific evidence that mask-wearing in the community, as part of a comprehensive strategy to prevent disease transmission, can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  2. Masks vary in how effectively they prevent the spread of COVID-19, depending on the material from which they are made, their structure, and how they are worn.
  3. There are multiple reasons people may not wear a mask, including lack of understanding of risks, perceived social stigma and unsupportive social norms, distrust in government authorities, or lack of access. Social science research to understand differing rates of adherence and barriers is important to inform strategies.
  1. Evidence supports the effectiveness of (1) legal mandates, (2) strategic communication and advertising campaigns, and (3) community engagement in increasing access to masks and providing positive social modeling. Integrating these three elements into a masking strategy can improve adherence.
  2. Community mask-wearing should be promoted as a “new normal” that people should adopt for the foreseeable future, until COVID-19 spread is extremely low or herd immunity is achieved through vaccination.
  3. Handwashing, physical distancing and reducing or eliminating high-risk situations (e.g. crowded indoor gatherings without mask- wearing) are also critical to limit the spread of COVID-19.


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