Image via screengrab
Image via screengrab

The meme compares wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic to wearing pants in the presence of a person uncontrollably urinating everywhere. 

On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence failed to wear a face mask while touring the Mayo Clinic, even though the facility requires all visitors to do so. A day later, people across the Internet began sharing a new meme aiming to explain why people should wear face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic.

The meme, which appears to have first been shared on reddit, at r/funny, compares wearing a mask during the coronavirus pandemic to wearing pants in the presence of a person uncontrollably urinating everywhere. 

The meme comes after months of evolving and contradictory guidelines on whether individuals should wear masks or not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially said face masks were only necessary for health care workers, people who are sick, or someone caring for a person who is sick. The CDC reversed course on April 3, however, citing new studies showing that asymptomatic people can transmit the virus to others without showing symptoms. 

“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the agency said.

The ever-evolving debate around masks and cloth face coverings has spurred confusion, misinformation, and skepticism surrounding the importance of wearing them. The meme, which seeks to clarify the urgency behind the CDC guidance, quickly went viral and was shared by the Philadelphia Department of Public Health on Thursday.

James Garrow, spokesperson for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, said the department shared the meme because it wanted to cut through the sheer volume of noise that the general public has been inundated with and emphasize the purpose of masks in a way that grabbed people’s attention.

“The best way to describe to the public about why they should wear masks is talking about the levels of protection that masks can provide. Many people, however, tend to tune that information out, especially as the pandemic drags on,” Garrow said in a statement to COURIER. “Masks are most useful for source control, meaning they function best when they are used to keep someone from spreading something from themselves to others, which is what this infographic is demonstrating.”

Garrow acknowledged the meme uses an imperfect analogy, but viewed it was an effective way to convey an important public health message. “It’s definitely generated discussion,” Garrow said. “We hope that people who have seen it take home the underlying message: your mask protects me, my mask protects you.”

Over the last decade, memes have quickly become a part of daily life for millions of Americans and they have been shown to be an incredibly effective communication tool for political leaders, companies, activists, and now, public health professionals.

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But is the meme accurate?

The answer is complicated, but public health experts seem to be in favor of any form of communication that effectively convinces people to take more proactive steps to protect their health.

“We’re still searching for analogies. I’m ambivalent about this one for several reasons, but I’m in favor of whatever encourages people to take more precautions,” said Dr. Stephen S. Morse, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. 

Morse said that he couldn’t be sure the meme would convince more people than it repels, but added that because of the evolving recommendations on masks, there remains a concern that people may develop a false sense of security and not take the necessary precautions.

The meme, perhaps, might prove useful at reinforcing the necessity of those precautions, according to Eleanor J. Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. 

“I do think that it provides a useful analogy to help people understand how masks may help because it helps relate mask use to something that people can easily understand and personally, I believe that analogy is often a very useful tool for science and risk communication,” Murray said. 

She did note a hint of caution, however, as some of the masks people are wearing are not as effective as others, which may put them more at risk of contracting COVID-19.

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“I do think [the meme in question] may somewhat downplay the risk when someone is wearing a mask/pants – many of the masks available are more like wearing a pair of shorts or a skirt than wearing a pair of pants. The virus / urine may be partially stopped but can still spread outside the individual,” Murray said.

She also noted that the meme has its limits and suggested a possible expansion of the analogy to make it more accurate. 

“Another part of this analogy that could be useful, but that I haven’t seen widely applied, is that if you are wearing urine-soaked pants and touch them, you can spread urine to other people or surfaces,” she said. “Similarly, if you are wearing pants and someone else’s urine has splashed on them, touching your pants can contaminate your hands with urine. This is also true with masks—touching the inside or outside surface of the mask is extremely discouraged and likely to spread virus from your hands to your mask and face, and from your mask to your hands and then to other people & surfaces.”

In short: even if you wear pants (masks), you need to be careful not to touch the urine-soaked (potentially contaminated) portion of the pants (masks).

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Murray also addressed the fact that some Americans have also been using their masks incorrectly or adjusting them too frequently, which can render them ineffective. “One could make the analogy that wearing a mask around your neck or chin is like wearing pants below your genital area—both would be ineffective for preventing spread of substances,” she said. 

In the end, the experts agree that it’s important to wear pants and wear masks. No one wants to get peed on or contract COVID-19.