The mask is the COVID-19 pandemic’s defining symbol, and probably will be the defining symbol of 2020. In America, the medical mask used to be confined to operating rooms and hospital dramas. It is a public health device but also has revealed itself as a mask in several different perceptions. It has become a political symbol: an object signifying a person’s politics and their relationship to truth itself. A bare face is what registers as a choice.
To its supporters, mask-wearing is a visual expression of civic duty, an affirmation of scientific authority, and a show of respect. To its critics, it is a sign of weakness, emasculation, and deceit. Many Americans accept the medical benefits of masks, and for those who do not, their rhetoric corresponds with racist ideas about Asian cultures where wearing a mask in public has long been normalized.
Among the maskless ranks is R.R. Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal, First Things, who tweeted, “Masks = enforced cowardice,” and Donald Trump, who said, “Somehow, I don’t see it for myself.” Brett Hume tweeted a picture of Biden wearing a mask on Memorial Day saying, “This might help explain why Trump doesn’t like to wear a mask in public. Biden today.” It was a childish thing to say. “This macho stuff,” Biden said after Trump retweeted a jab at the candidate’s own mask. “It’s cost people’s lives.” For people who refuse to wear masks, the implication is that people who choose to wear masks are not just protecting themselves — they are attacking the president and his supporters.
Ironically, in 1918, when the Spanish flu pandemic coincided with World War I, many Americans wore masks as a symbol of their patriotism, and their effort to curb the spread of the disease to protect soldiers who were about to enter the battlefield. San Francisco, along with other Western cities such as Seattle, Juneau, and Phoenix, passed laws requiring masks in public. Violators could be ticketed, fined, and imprisoned. Even so, protests against wearing masks were plentiful in 1918. San Francisco saw the creation of the anti-mask league, as well as protests and civil disobedience. People refused to wear masks in public or flaunted wearing them improperly. Some went to prison for not wearing them or refusing to pay fines. Within weeks, however, as the number of cases and deaths decreased, recommendations and even regulations to wear masks were relaxed and then eliminated. Because of this, cases spiked again around Thanksgiving, and another surge occurred into the New Year. These second and third waves were the deadliest. However, in many places, there was no appetite to enact another set of mandates. Removing those orders, and then trying to re-implement them a second time, proved to be exceedingly difficult. By then, the patriotic fervor that influenced compliance had waned.
Historians and scientists at the University of Michigan and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have studied the efforts of trying to contain the Spanish Flu of 1918. Comparative analysis of data from several American cities during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic provide incontrovertible evidence of the effectiveness of the kind of restrictions we are living with today. Cities that imposed expansive closure orders early and maintained them for the duration of pandemic conditions suffered significantly lower death rates than those cities that did not. While protestors in 1918 fought against the hated mask, their act of gathering, which was entirely legal at the time, was helping to spread the disease.
Wearing masks is a collective declaration of a serious disease recognizing that behavior of an entire population must change. In this sense, the seeming omnipresence of masks in historical photographs from 1918 reinforces the message that preventing transmission is a community effort requiring substantial behavioral change. Wearing masks means accepting that community welfare supersedes individual preferences. It should not be a political issue. Instead, wearing a mask should follow the maxim that is found in many religions and cultures often known as the Golden Rule: treat others as you want to be treated.
One of the sanest voices in the government’s response to the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has called for a cautious approach to reopening the US and implored Americans to wear face masks in public. Fauci said, “I want to protect myself and protect others, and also because I want to make it be a symbol for people to see that that’s the kind of thing you should be doing.” He went on to say that while wearing a mask is not “100% effective,” it is a valuable safeguard and shows “respect for another person.” His comments are at odds with Trump’s push to have America quickly return to normalcy.
Trump seems unwilling to fight the coronavirus rationally instead claiming it will disappear “like a miracle.” It’s as if taking the disease seriously is an indictment of his presidency. By dismissing the threat and banishing its visual cues, Trump also shields his own reputation and protects his personal vanity. While everyone who refuses to wear a mask might not be pro-Trump, they all have two things in common: selfishness and ignorance. These two traits seem to be glorified by part of the American public, and that is just not acceptable.