The Danger of Politicising a pandemic

Wearing a face mask or face covering could reduce the transmission of Covid-19 by as much as 50%, experts have said. So with 25% of the world’s Covid deaths, you’d think Americans would be more than happy to simply put on a mask and jump at the chance of saving the lives of their compatriots.

That would be incorrect.

Despite Dr Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the country, begging people to “forget the politics,” and “look at the data” because this “should not be a political issue,” so many remain skeptical and vocal in their disdain for masks.

A narrative of masks being a tool to control the population, to silence voices and to restrict freedoms has been perpetuated by many on the right-wing, and of course, helped along by Donald Trump himself.

Left vs Right

In May, Politico described the mask as becoming “the ultimate symbol of this new cultural and political divide.” In a climate of constant friction between left and right, in which even the most basic topics are politicised, the left viewed masks as important in preventing the spread of the virus, while the right looked at them as an overreaction and a form of social control.

Republican law makers have refused to wear them in Congress, despite the recommendations that they do so, and at the start of the crisis, Representative Matt Gaetz even mocked the panic by wearing a full gas mask to the House. Vice President Mike Pence visited a top hospital in late April and was the only person not wearing a mask – the medical center’s own rules state that visitors should wear protective equipment.

Of course, ever a populist to his right wing base, Trump first played down the virus, suggesting it would go away easily, and then played up to the idea that masks were a joke. He mocked his Democrat rival Joe Biden when he wore one, and throughout the pandemic has repeatedly hinted at the negative “sides” to wearing one: “You know, there was a time when people thought it was worse wearing a mask. I let people make up their own decision.” He also said: “Just about everybody has a face mask on. They’ve learned about face masks — the good and the bad, by the way. It’s not a one-sided thing, believe it or not.”

At one point, he pondered out loud if it would be “politically correct” to wear one, again highlighting the politicisation masks have suffered, and it is this accumulation of actions, comments, and sheer lack of leadership, that has contributed to the outpouring of conspiracy theories online, further fueling fears and skepticism when it comes to facial coverings.

Social Media Anti-Mask Movements

From Conservative commentators, to everyday right wing anti-maskers bemoaning their infringed freedoms, social media has been abuzz with fear and resentment towards masks. It is similar to what Dr Fauci refers to as a “general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people”, and it ought to be a concern that the President can either not stand up to these people, or is in fact, one of those people.

Social media saw the spreading of the “Freedom to Breathe Agency” which created laminated cards that state the bearer is exempt from requiring a mask in public: “Wearing a face mask posses a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you.” They are of course fake and have no authority under the Americans with Disability Act, but were shared widely online nevertheless.

Town Hall debates in local government offices descended into shouting matches, with locals in Palm Beach, Florida offering some of the most bizarre anti-mask conspiracy theories and arguments you will likely hear. The comments went viral and included a woman screaming that masks are “literally killing people,” calling laws to enforce mask wearing “crimes against humanity” and asserting that government officials are “obeying the devil’s law.”

I took a look through the right-wing “free-speech” social platform, Gab (discussed here), and scoured the comments on the top Covid-19 stories. The majority feel the pandemic is a hoax, a fake or at least being exaggerated. In response to a story on Greta Thunberg asserting that climate change is “as urgent” as Covid-19, one response reads: “Both crises are equally urgent because both of them are equally fake.”

Twitter, too, has been a strong source of dissenting views as can be seen below, with a similar theme being the fear of “compliance” and “control”.

Clearly, an ideological hatred for the left and the Democratic Party has propelled this animosity for anything the Democrats stand for, such as wearing a mask. Unfortunately, such rhetoric has not been batted back swiftly enough by authority figures on the right, fearful of the reaction from Trump’s base.

Only recently, around 5 months into the pandemic, has the Republican Majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, come forward to say publicly that, “Until we find a vaccine, these are really important,” as he held up a mask. He followed up by saying in the Senate: “We must have no stigma — none — about wearing masks when we leave our homes.”

But this is likely too little, too late. If the leader of the country came forward at the start of the pandemic, to highlight the importance of wearing a mask, wore one proudly, and told those fearful and skeptical supporters, that this was vital for the recovery of the country, maybe the US wouldn’t be suffering the worst Covid numbers in the world.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in his press conference today, called on Donald Trump to “put a mask on it” and sign an executive order requiring people to wear face coverings in public: “We did it two months ago in this state. Let the president have the same sense to do that as an executive order and then let the president lead by example and let the president put a mask on it, because we know it works.”

Such a U-turn is unlikely from the President, and without a big push from Republican leaders and Presidential advisors, making masks mainstream in the right-wing fringes will continue to be challenging.

It is no coincidence, that the country where face masks have been politicised, and where leaders have been disunited in their messaging, are also the country with a new, damaging Covid spike, and a population in very real danger of further suffering.