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Mask as metaphor

What the face mask says about us in the age of COVID-19

Aaron S. Bayley

The surgical mask has become the face of the coronavirus pandemic and a catalyst for controversy. One thing that's become abundantly clear is its power to lay bare society's ideological schisms.

Surgical masks and N95 respirators are considered critical for essential workers in healthcare and are more effective than homemade masks at blocking virus particles. Public health officials in Canada recommend wearing a homemade, non-medical face mask, or face covering when social distancing in public spaces is not possible. In the United States, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the same thing and released a video of Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams showing how to make a mask with household items. The purpose of wearing a face mask is to protect the wearer from contracting coronavirus or transmitting it to others. Because of asymptomatic transmission, people who feel healthy but may have been exposed to the virus should wear a mask. We have seen that not only the ill and elderly but seemingly healthy middle-aged adults can contract COVID-19 and even die from it. Although wearing a face mask alone will not guarantee immunity from the disease, using it in conjunction with vigorous hand washing and social distancing is thought to reduce the risk. Still, there is no conclusive evidence that widespread use of masks will reduce transmission of the disease. On the other hand, wearing a mask in public won't kill you.

In China, a country known for its air pollution, it is common to see people walking around wearing surgical masks. It's also common to see Asians wearing masks in large metropolitan cities like New York, London, and Toronto. People in various countries wear face masks both because of cultural habits and personal hygiene.

To wear or not to wear a face mask has become a political act, and the mask, a powerful metaphor. For those who choose to wear one it is an act of selflessness and consideration for the more vulnerable members of society. For those who choose not to it is an act of selfishness and a middle finger to public safety. These two groups—the masked and the unmasked—roughly reflect the ideological divide that characterizes the Fake News era. The mask-wearers don masks for various reasons: to protect themselves, to protect others, to save lives, or to appear morally superior and intellectually superior to those who don't, but always with the basic understanding that wearing a mask is ultimately an act of decency and empathy. If the science surrounding the health claims doesn't hold up, they will have lost nothing and harmed no one by unnecessarily wearing a mask.

Those who not only refuse to wear a mask but make a show of their refusal via public protest perceive themselves as invincible and non-conformist. They deem the mask as an affront to their civil liberties, and public health institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO) as corrupt purveyors of misinformation. In the U.S., the refusal to wear a mask in close public spaces is a decidedly Trumpian act. Megachurch pastors tell their parishioners not to wear masks because God will protect them from coronavirus. Trump supporters see their president and his cronies on TV sans mask and dutifully emulate his actions. In Los Angeles, a Trump supporter named Genevieve Peters was kicked out of a Trader Joe's for refusing to wear a face mask. As the cashier called 9/11 she filmed the encounter, portraying herself as a victim. When asked why she isn't wearing a mask, she replied, "I don't wan to breathe my own CO2." Peters, who is white, was christened "Coronavirus Karen" by the Internet for her sense of entitlement and privilege. "They're literally calling the police on me because I'm not putting this mask on," she complained. In Detroit, right-wingers sent mixed messages by protesting with guns while wearing face masks (were they hoping to shoot COVID-19?)

The anti-mask propaganda and anti-intellectualism embraced by the anti-maskers is dangerously counterproductive and poisons public discourse. Peters' claim that she is "uncomfortable wearing a mask" is an insult to those employed in the essential service sector who have no choice but to put themselves in harm's way. Maybe the reason Peters felt uncomfortable wearing a mask is because then she would feel self-conscious and "othered," like the black and Asian minorities that are racially discriminated against on a regular basis.

Expecting anti-maskers to demonstrate decency and empathy in a time of crisis is futile. To them, the crisis is a hoax, and decency and empathy are weak traits practiced by soft liberals. But their refusal to wear a mask in closed public spaces is not a courageous act of non-conformity. It's a petty act of rebellion that proves nothing except their own ignorance.


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