The Problem With Politicizing Face Masks

Sarah Midkiff
BROOKLYN, NY – JUNE 12: Skateboarders wearing protective masks gather during a protest against the death of George Floyd on June 12, 2020 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, who has been charged with second-degree murder and the three other officers who participated in the arrest have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Floyd’s death, the most recent in a series of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, has set off weeks of protests across the country. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
BROOKLYN, NY – JUNE 12: Skateboarders wearing protective masks gather during a protest against the death of George Floyd on June 12, 2020 in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis, who has been charged with second-degree murder and the three other officers who participated in the arrest have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder. Floyd’s death, the most recent in a series of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police, has set off weeks of protests across the country. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Somewhere between the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advising everyone to wear masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and stores enforcing “no mask, no service” policies, the concept of wearing a piece of cloth over your mouth and nose has become a topic of debate. Despite the massive risk reduction provided by wearing a mask in public, the stigmatized face covering is now a political issue.

Enter the anti-maskers: groups or individuals who refuse to wear a mask for a variety of reasons like “doctor’s orders” or “personal freedom.” A recent example of this ideology circulated in a viral video of a woman at a Trader Joe’s in North Hollywood, CA throwing a tantrum because store employees asked her to wear a mask to protect herself and others. But she refused to oblige and instead threw down her shopping basket and shouted, “You think this is okay? You’re democratic pigs, all of you!” 

Another video of anti-mask Florida residents warning of satanism and death provided the Internet with such soundbites as “I don’t wear a mask for the same reason I don’t wear underwear: things gotta breathe.” In that video, people voiced their anger and frustration over mandates to wear a mask. “Where do you derive the authority to regulate human breathing?” One woman asked. “What you say is the political dogma that they’re trying to shove down our throats on every commercial, in every store, and it’s disgusting.” 

The controversy over wearing a mask in public during a health pandemic isn’t relegated to a couple of videos of Karens and their refusals — the issue has politicians and world leaders divided as well. President Donald Trump has been photographed not wearing a mask at public events on numerous occasions. “I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” the president said during a press conference in April. “Wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens — I just don’t see it.” 

In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, Trump reportedly claimed he believed some people are just wearing masks to show their disapproval of him rather than as a protective measure against the coronavirus. Meanwhile, even members of Trump’s own party are breaking from this thinking and encouraging masks in the face of a possible second wave.

“Wearing a simple face covering is not about protecting ourselves, it is about protecting everyone we encounter,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the floor of the Senate. Over the weekend, Vice President Mike Pence donned a mask as he implored Americans to do the same — a shocking feat for a VP who refuted COVID-19’s existence for too long.

Despite this, the result of Trump’s dogged stance against masks has amounted into the anti-maskers causing public scenes and becoming the source of Instagram feeds covered in “wear a mask” mantras, too.

A common argument against wearing a mask, as purported by Karen, is having a breathing condition or problem that makes someone exempt, per doctor’s orders. But this isn’t exactly true, according to actual doctors. “No real doctor would tell a patient not to wear a mask during COVID-19. Even those with asthma, COPD, and other respiratory conditions should wear a mask in public,” reads a tweet from Dr. Eugene Gu.

“It’s about other people,” Dr. Darien Sutton told Refinery29. “Masks do not prevent you from breathing. They’re similar to what we wear in operating rooms. It prevents the outward projection of your germs.” Sutton went on to explain that masks are not attempting to seal off a person’s breathing. Similar to the reasoning behind covering a cough, one of the mask’s main functions is catching and redirecting germs that would reach others. “If a mask truly prevents you from breathing, you shouldn’t be out during a pandemic. That would mean you are high risk. A mask never prevents someone from receiving oxygen,” Sutton continued.

Sutton commented on the differences in messaging around masks citing that New York City made it about caring for others and having compassion for your community while other cities seemed quicker to perceive this as a personal infringement on independence. But to the anti-maskers, the concept of “freedom” seems to consistently veer back into the conversation.

Seth Gillihan, a clinical psychologist, explored the mindset behind mask-wearing and why people don’t like being told what to do. According to him, a lot of it comes down to fear and wounded ego. “Many of us pride ourselves on our individualism. We want to make our own decisions, and stand out from the crowd,” Gillihan writes. “Following collective orders like ‘shelter in place’ or ‘wear masks when you can’t social distance’ might feel like giving up an essential part of our identity. This factor is especially prominent in western societies, like the U.S., that place a premium on our individual identities.”

The arguments against wearing a mask are often rooted in this idea of stripped freedom and individualism. First we had to stay at home, now we cannot go out without face coverings, what is next? But this logic — or lack thereof — discounts the pandemic of it all. The problem with politicizing a health mandate is that it runs the risk of dehumanizing the issue. There can be many motivations behind why people choose to wear or not wear masks. That doesn’t change the statistics supporting a mask’s effectiveness or transmission rates, but it does help us understand why some people can put on a mask and others see it as a violation of their rights.

According to health experts, the pandemic can only be handled by the public on a day-by-day basis. This means that, as of now, wearing a mask is the safest way to protect ourselves and others, and complying with mask mandates will only help to eventually restore a maskless future for all of us. For now, this viral tweet sums up the very unpolitical argument over wearing a mask pretty well:

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