According to a recent study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70 percent of the people who tested positive for COVID-19 wore masks regularly. By contrast, under 4 percent of those testing positive never wore masks.
Coupled with this was an extensive review of mask studies worldwide in which the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) determined that typical cloth masks did little to stop the transmission of COVID-19. Although experts like to claim that cloth masks will prevent droplets carrying the virus from reaching others when a person sneezes or coughs, the reality is that most people are probably better off using their elbow and turning away from others. Moreover, the virus can still pass through a cloth mask, and the eyes, which aren’t covered, can act as “a portal of entry.”
The scientific evidence here strongly suggests that masks do nothing at best, and may actually increase the spread of infection at worst. This is probably why countries that haven’t imposed mask mandates do just as well or better than those that have required them.
And yet, the symbolism behind masks is significant enough for mask mandates and mask-shaming to continue.
Despite the rhetoric, the science was always secondary—as the AAPS writers note, this is shown in the fact that “The recommendation [for universal masking] was published without a single scientific paper or other information provided to support that cloth masks actually provide any respiratory protection.”
Rather, masks were a tool for spreading awareness and keeping Americans in fear of a virus that posed minimal risk to the great majority of the population. And in an election year, such an environment could turn Americans against Trump and the Republican Party. That’s why the masks mandates likely will only end after the election.
In light of the evolving narrative and multiplying meanings behind masks, however, there is reason to think that masking will continue for a much longer time. It has become bigger than politics.
Masks may not be able to block COVID-19, but increasingly they have blocked common sense from the wearers. After so many months of mandates and propaganda, people have a lot invested in their understanding of what it means to be a good faithful American embodied in the face mask.
It wasn’t this way at first. In May and June, soon after states were reopening from their lockdowns, masks were an extra precaution taken by people simply being courteous towards others. The idea wasn’t to prevent one from being infected, but from infecting others. At that time, the mask conferred easy moral superiority to the wearer who could claim he was doing his part to help others.
Soon enough, governors and mayors mandated masking. Businesses and churches that failed to turn out customers without masks would be subject to heavy fines along with the individual offenders themselves. Even though masks were intended to enable safe reopening for states, most governments maintained closures of public areas and tight restrictions on building capacity. It was not enough to stand 6+ feet apart; people had to wear a mask now, too.
This was when masks became a partisan issue. Conservatives mainly saw them as yet more proof of a busybody government exploiting a crisis. Progressives saw them as badges of civic duty, and many were willing to go even further, wearing their masks outdoors, at home, and alone in their cars.
In its final phase the mask’s symbolism has now taken on spiritual and psychological dimensions. While some advocates of masking might insist on the science or the expert testimonials behind masking, most of them now treat it as an unquestionable article of faith. Like the Christian cross representing Christ’s overcoming sin, the mask represents mankind overcoming the virus. It is like the Muslim hijab or Catholic veil indicating modesty and reverence before God. The mask indicates modesty and reverence before the virus. Like the yin-yang circle reflecting the cosmic forces of light and dark in harmony with one another, the mask reflects the life forces of infection and recovery in harmony with one another.
The mask doesn’t just signal virtue to others, it is a transcendent union with other people who treat the virus with sufficient seriousness. Whereas church services are unsafe for communities of believers to meet, people can form a community of COVID-19 believers by wearing their masks and nodding at one another from a safe distance. They can share in the feeling that they are saving lives, respecting science, and taking concrete action against the virus.
No one should underestimate how strong and widespread the belief in masks is. For many, they are a source of profound security. They are secure from the virus, immorality, and in the promise of societal approval. Their masks even empower them to become puritanical and judgmental. With full-throated conviction, they will blame victims of COVID-19 for not wearing masks and for lacking sufficient faith in the mask. They will insist on quarantining them and their family members for two-weeks no matter what. In most cases, it’s difficult to determine whether this is a health precaution designed to mitigate spread or a punishment for being near the virus in the first place.
Many people who are frustrated with the masking simply want to return to mask-free normality. It isn’t so simple anymore. Asking a person to take off his mask now means asking him to take off all that the masking has come to mean. Removing it means removing one’s safety, one’s sense of belonging, and one’s values. This is probably why face mask-wearing has even become an addiction in a developed country like Japan. They were originally used to help with hay fever, but are now used all year round for whatever reason.
Facts or even a Republican victory in November won’t be enough in the fights against masks. Maskers need to be constantly yet gently reminded of the reality that masks took away: real community, real science, real safety, and real meaning. The goal should be not revenge, but rather a release from a symbol that hides people from one another and perpetuates fear.
Many people were wrong about the masks, even the experts. This is forgivable, and therefore forgiveness is offered. Once Americans come to terms with masks, they will be able to clear the air both figuratively and literally and finally make it past the pandemic nightmare.