India Unmasked: Survey Reveals CovIdiots, Ignorance And Insufficient Contextual Guidance in mask adherence

Results of an observational mask adherence study across 11 cities by Digital India Foundation throws up interesting insights such as cloth masks (the least protective of all) are most popular and older folks (who are supposedly more vulnerable) are more complacent.

Mumbai market
Image used For Representational Purpose Only. (Photo: PTI)

ON MARCH 10, 2021, Google Doodle featured the man who may have saved millions of lives in the on-going pandemic, even 60 years after he died. Google was paying a tribute to Dr Wu Lien-teh, a Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist, on what would have been his 142nd birthday. Dr Wu invented the Wu mask, widely considered the precursor to today’s N95 respirator, during China’s Manchurian Plague in 1910-11.

Dr Wu’s work has been recognised as “a milestone” in epidemiological principles in disease control. The cloth mask he created was used throughout most of the world in the early 20th century, which he identified as the “principal means” of personal protection. He also emphasised that face coverings were recommended for protection from respiratory pandemics since the 14th century.

Google Doodle marking Dr Wu Lien-teh’s 142nd birth anniversary.

Centuries later, and as science and technology progressed by leaps and bounds, this common wisdom eludes us. Health authorities and policy makers globally are grappling with the general population to translate the evidence of public mask wearing to their contexts. They have been largely unsuccessful in reinforcing the use of masks as a tool to combat respiratory virus SARS-CoV-2, which has been causing Covid-19 since its initial outbreak in China.

Unmasking India

Digital India Foundation (DIF), a non-for-profit think-tank, released an observational mask adherence study across 11 cities in India recently to determine mask adherence levels among different age groups at public places in the country.

The findings are not shocking, especially since it was an observational study, meaning assessors on ground were collecting data after observing the subjects, who in this case were the general population across pre-defined cities. Similar masses who are often seen in viral images and videos as repeat offenders of Covid-appropiate measures and social-distancing norms.

People flout social distancing norms at Sarojini Nagar market amid the surge in Omicron cases, in New Delhi on January 7, 2022. (ANI Photo)

Here is how the 11 cities fared.

Mumbai Shows The Way

The densely-populated financial capital of the nation, Mumbai, shines the light on average mask adherence score. In a sample size of 1,918, 76% of assessees were found to be  fully-masked, only 6% wore no mask. There were close to 18% fence-sitters, partially masked at the time of the survey and wearing theirs below the nose.

Adherence to masks at public places, such as malls, markets, parks, hospitals, religious areas, bus stands and railway stations, were at the highest in Mumbai compared to other cities (CHECK). However, what was surprising was the senior folks in the age group of 56 and above were amongst the ones who dropped theirs fully – only 40% wore masks, and of those none were seen wearing N95 masks, with most (36%) preferring cloth masks. Youngsters in the age group of 18-25 were the ones with the highest adherence at 80%.

While 25% of Mumbaiites who did not wear masks justified their action as “I am vaccinated”, while an equal percentage of respondents said “I feel suffocated/irritated”.

The high trend of the cloth masks in Mumbai was universal, most preferring it as their shield of choice, followed by surgical and then N95 masks. In the current wave driven by the Omicron variant, health experts have said cloth masks may not offer adequate protection. Double masking with a combo of cloth and N95 has been recommended.

Despite the high adherence to masking up, Mumbai is currently going through a record surge in cases, possibly fueled by the new variant.

Bottoms Up

Raipur, the capital city of Chhattisgarh, gets the dubious honour of ending up at the bottom of the heap. The city, where schools have currently been shut and night curfew imposed as Covid-19 cases surge, saw 61% of the assessees without masks, 11% were partially masked and only 28% had their masks on.

Of those masked up, almost equal preference was given to the three masks – cloth, surgical and N95 – with cloth masks scoring slightly higher at 36%.

People flouting social distance norms visit Bara Imambara, in Lucknow on Friday. (Photo: ANI)

A very high percentage of male assessees chose not to wear masks (68%) as compared to females (49%) in Raipur. Mask adherence by the seniormost age group assessed, 56 years and above, was at a mere 17%. As in Mumbai, the youngsters between 18-25 years of age were at highest adherence but in comparison just 35% wore masks.

There were only two reasons offered for discarding masks. Thirty-three per cent of the respondents said, “I am vaccinated”, while a whopping 67% said “I don’t think Covid-19 is still a threat”.

On Wednesday, Chhattisgarh reported its first official Omicron patient, a 53-year-old who returned from UAE. Cases are on the rise in the state and a week earlier, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel said Raipur and Raigarh were seeing rising cases.


In between, there are Chandigarh (52%), Guwahati (50%), Chennai and Kolkata (48% each) amongst the 11 cities which sees almost an equal split of those who forsake the mask and those who either comply fully and partially. 

Delhi and Jammu are almost evenly tied at 46% at not wearing masks, as well as fully masked citizens (38% and 39%, respectively). Delhi earns a special mention for dropping its mask the most at religious places, only 21.6% wore masks while visiting these places of worship. A close second is Guwahati, a well known temple town of the East, at 22.2%. 

Pune, Hyderabad come a distant second to Mumbai in terms of mask adherence with 37% each. Shimla crosses over to 40% in non-adherence, and also offers interesting insight as to why the assessees don’t wear masks. A whopping 90% gave “miscellaneous” as a reason while 9% felt “suffocated”. Perhaps the high altitude and thin mountain air make the climb up and down more strenuous. 

CityFully MaskedPartially MaskedNo Mask

Source: Digital India Foundation | Read the full survey here