The politicisation of the mask

July 5, 2020

Why not make it compulsory to wear masks in public?

Dear All,

The coronavirus epidemic continues to destroy our world in more ways than one: not only is it killing people and devastating families but the politics of how best to contain it is also tearing apart countries and communities.

One of the main points of contention and division is, oddly enough, the face mask. The debate has now gone way beyond the question of the efficacy of widespread mask use in preventing the spread of infection; the whole issue has now become almost absurdly controversial.

The United States, for example, seems to be divided into those who favour masks and those who outright reject them. The mask deniers don’t just refuse to wear a mask, they actually demonise the use of the mask. There are now shops that don’t allow in anybody who is wearing a mask. Truly. The argument advanced for this by such establishments (and those who frequent them) is that wearing a mask is ‘un-American’. This argument is invariably cited by supporters of Donald Trump because the president continues to convey to his audience that Covid-19 is the ‘Chinese virus’ and the epidemic is a sinister conspiracy to weaken America. He refuses to adhere to mask protocols and he manages to somehow convey that patriotic Americans are actually, somehow, immune to the infection…
In Britain, the government has been similarly irresponsible by being strangely vague on the issue. For some unknown reason, Boris Johnson’s government has resisted making the use of face masks compulsory in public places. Ministers and senior officials have also failed to convey through their own behavior the importance of wearing a mask during the pandemic. If these leaders had bothered to wear masks regularly, they would have set an important example and normalised, to some extent the use of the mask. Instead of doing this, their narrative has been that ‘there is no solid evidence that wearing a mask makes a difference as only infected people need to wear a mask to prevent their spreading the infection’.

This is, of course, a flawed argument because a) somebody could be infectious and not be aware of it and b) the mask does provide at least some level of protection from an infection that is spread by droplet. A mask protects from infection by direct droplet (from coughs and sneezes) as well as from infection spread by one’s hand because the mask deters one from casually touching one’s face with hands that may have touched contaminated surfaces (door handles, railings, keypads, packages etc). The whole question of which sort of mask can adequately protect from the infection then veers off into various technicalities – should it be 3 layers or more? Disposable single-use or washable? M95 or K5?

But a mask is better than no mask and the point here is not just the individual mask, the point is to change individual behaviour, to normalise the actual wearing of masks and to stress that it is irresponsible – and perhaps close to criminal – behaviour to not do so.

Professor Peter Piot is the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and is a leading virologist who co-discovered Ebola (in 1976). As such you would expect him to be a key figure in advising the British government on their handling of the pandemic, but for some unknown reason he is not. He is of the view that face masks should be “compulsory for adults in all public and enclosed spaces”. In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Professor Piot said that he had had the corinavirus and that it “had almost finished him off”. He says that instead of demanding ‘evidence’ of mask efficacy, Britain should have made wearing compulsory as a precautionary measure. He points out that there are very few randomised trials to study this but “if everybody wears one, we know from other countries that it works”, and he cites here the example of Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan which have adopted masks as “an act of civic duty and collective wellbeing”.

The mayor of London managed to make face masks compulsory on public transport just before the lockdown measures were eased to allow more people to commute to work yet several commuters were either seen without a mask (it was in a bag or pocket) or wearing their mask on their chin or head... When interviewed about why they were doing so, it was clear that they thought this was an individual decision rather than a collective responsibility.

It’s the same story in so many countries, but particularly those which are led by opinionated demagogues who insist on their own wisdom. This ‘wisdom’ is usually irrational and shaped mainly by defiance and denial. But now, as with so many things in this pandemic, the mask question has become not a matter of science or civics but a matter of politics. Making masks compulsory in crowded or enclosed places would have normalised the practice and made their use widespread and visible. The use of the mask could have been used to convey the seriousness of the situation and the need for responsible behaviour. Instead the use of the mask conveys quite a different message: Professor Pietro points out how, for example, masks have become a divisive issue in the US – “Someone who wears a mask is [seen as ] a democrat or a republican who doesn’t support Trump”.

Religious faith (as in Pakistan) or loud patriotism (as in the US will not provide immunity to Covid-19. If governments had wanted, they could easily have made mask wearing an essential component of easing lockdown, they could even have set up production of PPE in their countries on an emergency basis and they could have ensured that masks were available free to all. But they didn’t and they don’t want to. In Britain, the fudging and lack of clarity on the issue continues and being maskless has somehow can become a symbol of independence. It’s really quite surreal.

Best wishes,

Umber Khairi

The politicisation of the mask