To mask or not to mask?
After months of lockdown—during which society was put under de facto house arrest and all social life was placed on standby; we were not permitted to see a single soul outside our households; extroverts were forced to become introverts and adventurers were turned into homebodies, effectively made to live sedentary and indolent lifestyles—societies across the world have taken the first steps into that uncanny hinterland: the new normal.
It is uncanny because lockdown restrictions have eased and will continue to ease incrementally, and social and economic life have resumed. People can go into shops, patronise restaurants and cafes—even travel abroad again. But, as we’re often reminded, it won’t be the old normal, the pre-Covid 19 normal. No, we exist in a new normal: a purgatory in which we’re still expected to maintain social distancing customs. Signs telling people to keep apart from their fellow creatures have become ubiquitous. Temperature checks and contact tracing schemes are becoming more established. And then there is the question of masks.
Ever since the start of this dreadful pandemic, a ridiculous debate has been raging as to whether or not mask wearing should become one of the new norms. Is it effective or not? Are we being masked or are we actually being muzzled? Is it a symbol of solidarity or of mass conformity?
The volte face from officialdom concerning the efficacy of masks hasn’t helped. At the beginning of this pandemic, the World Heath Organization declared that masks were unnecessary. Four months later, they changed their minds: declaring masks kosher after all. A couple of weeks before the lockdown, in a Q&A between the deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, and Boris Johnson, Harries said that masks would not be necessary at all. A few months later, following Scotland’s lead, the government announced that masks would be compulsory in shops and supermarkets from 24 July, not long after Michael Gove declared in an interview that masks would be a matter of choice and the free exercise of “common sense.”
Masks have turned from a temporary precautionary measure during an exceptional pandemic to a key symbol of the culture war that has defined social discourse throughout this crisis. Some shops in America have reportedly even denied entry to those wearing masks. Roseanne Cash was called a “liberal pussy” for wearing a mask into a shop in Tennessee. Anti-mask protests have taken in place across America, Britain and Canada. Opponents of masks frequently raise the spectre of medical totalitarianism. They will not be tested, traced and masked. In its worst form, opposition to masks is one of the kooky practices of those who think that Bill Gates is a bigger threat to humanity than Covid-19.
Johnson’s edict on compulsory masking certainly annoyed some of his backbench Tory MPs, who argue that it will stop people shopping and using businesses, out of fear of the constant reminders of the virus’ presence, and that soon people will stop using pubs and other social spaces, too.
Other critics, often derisively tagged as Covid contrarians, argue that compulsory masking is a harbinger of authoritarianism. They assert that the demand for masking is really about muzzling the public, treating them like out of control dogs who need to be disciplined and brought into line. Brendan O’Neill has recently claimed that masks are at least partially “designed to muzzle free expression. Gag yourself. STFU.” Peter Hitchens has commented that the wearing of masks signifies how “submitted, defeated, surrendered, mouthless and voiceless” the British public is. Which is odd considering the Black Lives Matters protests that have engulfed much of Western Europe and North America over the past month. However you view them, they don’t exactly suggest that people have been muzzled.
Personally, I don’t support the government’s edict. I am not a fan of this sort of nudging. Masking should be the outcome of people authentically taking precautions, rather than governments micromanaging the minutiae of social and interpersonal interactions from above. It also doesn’t make any sense to have to wear a mask in a supermarket, where you don’t interact with people much, but not have to wear one in a pub, where you are in close contact with other people for a longer period. Furthermore, I don’t like people shaming those who don’t wear masks because some people may have genuine breathing problems that make wearing a mask for a considerable period of time difficult.
However, in the grand scheme of things, wearing a mask for a short period of your day, while at the shops, is not a big deal. There is a lot of puerile and self-pitying whinging among the critics of masks. The point of masks isn’t self-preservation, but for the preservation of others: to lessen the likelihood of asymptomatic people unknowingly spreading the virus to people they come into close contact with, who could be seriously damaged by it. Mask ultra-rejectionists draw upon quasi-individualist arguments, assuming that they are the only individuals, while everyone else is part of an obsequious herd. But masks help preserve as much personal freedom and normality for everyone as is possible during a difficult and exceptional moment like this. To compare mask wearing as a precautionary practice during an exceptional event like a pandemic to totalitarianism is ridiculous.
I say this as someone who was once a lockdown sceptic. I didn’t think lockdown was the only effective strategy that could have been taken. I would have preferred it if Britain had taken an approach similar to that of South Korea, with intelligent public health measures based on mass testing, tracing and isolation, as well as social distancing measures—in which case there would have been no need for extremely economically debilitating lockdown measures, as only those with the virus would have needed to be isolated. This wouldn’t have been a perfect solution. There would still have been disruption to daily life. But it would have been more effective, softened the economic turbulence and maintained people’s liberties to a greater extent.
People like Brendan O’Neill have spent the past few years ventriloquising on behalf the masses, posing as democrats defending popular wisdom against Remoaners and woke snobs. Yet, the irony is that the people supported the lockdown, opposed its early easing and supported mask wearing, including compulsory masking in shops. It’s harder to assimilate Covid-19 into an off the shelf populist narrative when the hoi polloi aren’t on side. Nevertheless, the question remains: if most people support these measures, why does the state have to issue diktats to make people actually follow them?
Part of the problem throughout this whole pandemic has been society’s inability to mobilise, or, as Hannah Arendt once put it, to “act in concert.” Because social consciousness has fragmented, the mass initiative necessary to deal with this pandemic and its after effects has been much more difficult to achieve. The state has stepped into this void, asserting its authority through nudge ordinances.
This crisis is unprecedented. The virus is novel and in many ways still unknown. Six months on, doctors, scientists and medical experts are still grappling with the implications of what Covid-19 is capable of. The worst affected Covid-19 patients describe their illness as something alien that has take over their bodies. One of the biggest misconceptions about Covid-19 is that it is a respiratory disease. It is true that severe forms of Covid-19 pulverise the lungs, leaving permanent scarring, lasting breathing problems and persistent coughing. But Covid-19 isn’t simply a respiratory disease. It is a complex multi-system virus, which can cause a variety of symptoms, such as skin rash, diarrhoea, back aches, blood in urine and damage to other organs.
Some patients experience damage to their kidneys. In some cases, dialysis will be needed, and perhaps a transplant over the longer term. According to an Edinburgh University study, heart scans of multiple patients from various countries have revealed that Covid-19 can disrupt the heart’s ability to pump blood. In extreme cases, it can lead to heart failure.
Unlike most other viruses, which leave the brain relatively unmolested, Covid-19 has been found to cause a variety of neurological problems. Even a mild form of the virus can lead to lingering issues with memory, fatigue, headaches, delirium and diminished taste and smell. At its most severe, it can lead to potentially debilitating strokes, including—most worryingly—among young and previously healthy people.
All of these studies and investigations are still at an early stage, and our knowledge of Covid-19 will continue to be revised, but the capriciousness of the virus is clear, as are its long term, sometimes irreversible, effects on the human body. If it wasn’t for the fact that ten million people across the world have tested positive and many people have died, Covid-19 would be fascinating from a purely scientific standpoint: an esoteric zoonotic virus long assumed to be restricted to bats somehow came into contact with the human body for the first time, producing weird and unpredictable reactions.
We need to stop blindly hoping that Covid-19 will just disappear and or adopt the cynical fatalism of those who think that repeated waves of coronavirus and accompanying instability will be an inevitability and the best that we can do is watch in awe as the ravages of nature take their course. Nothing is inevitable. This is just arrogant nihilism masquerading as wisdom. Defying the ravages of nature is part of being human. Our actions matter. We can alter the course of this pandemic. At this stage, global eradication is unrealistic unless we find a vaccine or cure (not that that should stop us from trying), but a zero-Covid approach within national borders is feasible, as countries such as New Zealand, Montenegro and Vietnam have shown.
If we want any semblance of normality—whether new or old—while still dedicated to a zero-Covid national strategy, then—like it or not—for the foreseeable future masks will have to become part of our new normal. Masks on their own, without a broad accompanying strategy executed with confidence, will not be sufficient to arrest the spread of Covid-19. But masks are a necessary part of that broad strategy. And will be a temporary, not a permanent, measure.
Photo by Gustavo Fring