During the current pandemic, if there is something all governments, scientists, businesses, and average citizens agree upon, it is that wearing a mask helps keep the novel coronavirus away, and we should all wear one. But only if it were that simple.
Over the past few months, from the United States to South Korea, the very mask that is supposed to restrict the spread of coronavirus has itself become politicised. And the ‘leader of the free world’, US President Donald Trump, is the face of that politicisation.
While it may seem like Trump’s outright refusal to wear the mask is the crux of the problem, it is hardly the tip of the iceberg. In the US, the harmless mask has emerged as a symbol of the raging political debate between Liberals and Conservatives. Liberals contend that wearing a mask is necessary for public safety. Conservatives disagree, arguing that being made to wear one poses a threat to their individual freedom. But this public safety vs individual freedom debate in the US is essentially a deeper debate between extending the Covid-19 lockdowns, or reopening provincial economies.
The politicisation of masks isn’t just limited to the US alone. In Brazil, president Jair Bolsonaro is often seen at public events without a mask. Things got so out of hand that a judge scolded the president, and ordered him to wear a mask at all times. Meanwhile, in South Korea, not wearing masks have led to 840 public fights in the month of June.
Trump’s anti-mask campaign
In a recent interview, Financial Times editor Edward Luce quipped that in the US, someone’s political affiliation could now be discerned by whether they wear a mask or not.
For months, the US president and his deputy Mike Pence were seen at public gatherings without a mask. It would be comical, if it were not utterly tragic, that Pence was photographed delivering personal protective equipment (PPE) kits to a nursing home, without a mask. Similarly, a maskless Trump was seen touring a mask factory in Arizona.
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This refusal to wear a mask by the Republican party’s top leadership has been reflected in public attitudes. Polls have shown that while the majority of Americans say that they wear a mask, Democrats are more likely to say they wear masks than Republicans.
Trump justified his refusal to wear masks by arguing that it would affect his public appearance and consequently, his re-election prospects. But as Trump mocked those who do wear masks, a large section of the Republican party – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and former Republican Vice-President Richard B. Cheney – publicly stated that there should be no stigma around wearing masks during the pandemic.
Given the backlash, Trump finally caved in and claimed to have changed his tack. Trump recently told Fox News that he is “all for masks”, and they make him look like the Lone Ranger. But it was too late, and the damage had already been done.
Over the past couple of months, a flurry of videos and posts have gone viral that show how wearing a mask makes it difficult for people to get oxygen, and how it adversely affects one’s heart rate. Although, none of these claims have been proved.
The situation got rather grim — CBS News was forced to call up experts to explain that if such theories were true, surgeons wearing masks in operation theatres would just be fainting all the time. But CBS is not alone, several doctors and news outlets have debunked these myths.
We might not have evidence of herd immunity for Covid-19 yet, but we clearly have evidence of herd stupidity.
Masks and race protests
Another section of Conservatives began to oppose masks after it became a symbol of Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd. Masks were even burnt as a sign of counter-protest.
In Scottsdale, Arizona, city councilman Guy Phillips led a protest against mask-wearing and used the phrase “I can’t breathe” — mocking the last words of George Floyd before he was killed by a police officer.
Several Conservative commentators have tried to also paint masks as a symbol of cowardice, cynically exaggerating the scale of the Covid-19 public health crisis.
“Their rhetoric dovetails with racist ideas about Asian cultures, where wearing a mask in public has long been normalized. And it improvises on decades of work on the right to stitch the words “effete” and “liberal” together, painting a whole swath of the political spectrum as a feminine affectation,” notes a report in the New York Times.
We have been here before
The last time the world saw a pandemic of this magnitude was the Spanish flu of 1918-19. About a hundred years later, a lot has changed but the politicisation of masks hasn’t. It was during the Spanish Flu that various governments in the West mandated the wearing of masks. But everyone did not agree to it.
At the time, some men opposed the wearing of masks because they perceived it to be a threat to their masculinity, associating the practice with “passive motherly figures”. Faced with this opposition, health officials decided to run campaigns that aimed to rebrand wearing masks as a sign of “red-blooded patriotism”.
At a time of rampant nationalism across the world, governments from Brazil to the US to South Korea could take a leaf out of history, and make masks a symbol of national pride during this global pandemic. It’s a rather sad state of affairs if even 100 years later, governments have to use such parochial tactics to ensure public safety.
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