Coronavirus 8: masking up and throwing down

The pandemic has introduced me to a guilty pleasure that I must confess: I really enjoy watching videos of people freaking out about having to wear a mask or other protective face covering in public places and when shopping. It is equal parts educational and deeply disturbing to watch someone simply lose. their. shit. when confronted with a public health measure that is both simple and effective in controlling the spread of communicable disease. I have watched many, many such videos, sourced from twitter, shared on facebook, embedded in news stories, or shared via email. These follow a well-trod path from the realization that the protagonist must leave or simply cannot enter a store without a mask through the indecorous collapse of their ability to control themselves in public. This leads to a denouement that always, always, always resolves itself through some combination of screaming at a retail worker or fellow customer, threats of legal action or even violence, profuse swearing, self-pitying claims to unnamed medical conditions that are not covid-19, and storming off stage right.

The precise balance of these elements depends not only on the setting, more often than not a grocery store (though the supercut of anti-mask speakers at this Palm Beach County, Florida council meeting is a real gem), but also on who is holding the camera. When the person begins filming from their own phone, you know that perhaps you’re in for a setup as they have broken the fourth wall from the get-go. They are already primed for what they clearly think is going to be either a big reveal — aha! masks are the slippery slope of fascism, the Kroger assistant manager said so ON CAMERA! — or they are going to get satisfaction for the whole world to see and their special case will so move the young woman restocking the shelves that liberty and freedom will ring across the land and they can shop without the constant reminder that they live in a slowly disintegrating death cult hellbent on sacrificing the weak for the sake of The Economy. On the other hand, if the camera is held by a bystander, you are in for a treat. Forget the barely measured explanation of personal liberty and unspecified non-covid breathing problems that the cameraman or -woman provides to the store greeter. In these cases we get a full-on explosion. These instances never disappoint, careening on an emotional roller coaster from conspiratorial screed to ad hominem attack to tears to lashing out at inanimate objects and casual observers and back again. Indeed, what could possess a grown man or woman to stand in the middle of a grocery store and literally throw objects, have the kind of tantrum that even my two-year-old hasn’t attempted, and scream obscenities at a retail worker who politely asks them to follow store policy and don a mask while they are inside? 

To answer this question we might consider many aggravating factors that could prime someone to behave in such a way, but first let me say I am not wholly unsympathetic. Like many of those opposed to mandatory mask orders from governments and in stores, I also do not like to be told what to do. For example, as a teenager, I quit a job at a grocery store a couple weeks earlier than planned because a new store policy would have required me to tuck in my shirt. Yet I am also not a dumbass. So amid a highly transmittable novel virus that might leave me and/or my family intubated in the ICU, I wash my hands like twenty times a day. I carry hand sanitizer wherever I go. And I always wear a mask when I go to the store.

So let’s get real. Those who are most likely to commit themselves to not wearing a mask and then blowing up about it on camera with seemingly no shame, self-awareness, or care for social context and others’ well-being, are white, middle-aged Americans (though Canadians, you are not out of the woods on this), generally not short on expendable income, who seem to not realize that the world does not revolve around their absolute and constant emotional and physical comfort. In fact, they may never realize this, in part because so much of the world we inhabit here in North America is in fact made for their comfort. We could be treated for years to come with an endless supply of cell phone videos in which white suburbanites in expensive yoga pants or whose social media profile pic looks like a thumb with a goatee and wraparound sunglasses have meltdowns in the Trader Joe’s wine aisle because they have to wear a protective mask while shopping. And why? What is the particular aversion to masks that provokes this extremely passionate and yet completely irrational reaction? I would highlight three main contributing factors, none of which could be easily or simply boiled down to ‘stupidity.’ It is far too easy to just wave this off as ignorance, even if that is, in some cases, a potentially important part of the equation. Neither is what follows meant to be particularly ‘mean’ for the sake of mocking these people (I already covered that above). But when you threaten to beat the shit out of someone at Costco, or throw all your groceries on the floor while telling everyone to fuck off, or scream bloody murder at a grocery store clerk, or just stop and sit on the floor like a child, just because they asked you to wear a mask when inside, then maybe you deserve some tough love.

So first, part of the anti-mask position is due to the inconsistent messaging about what a protective mask is for, dating back to the initial appearance and then surge of cases in the US, Canada, and Europe. At the time there were still many unknowns about how coronavirus was transmitted, and doctors, public health officials, and policymakers had not yet determined how best to protect oneself. There were also looming PPE shortages in hospitals, and so the availability of masks was limited as formal and informal forms of rationing and procurement of new supplies of masks and other protective gear took hold at local, state/provincial, and national scales. Some suggested that masks would do little to stop the virus, or that they could promote a false sense of security, and even actually recommended not wearing them in public. In some cases this was just knee-jerk bureaucratic and political reaction to what many policymakers and supposedly responsible adults touted as just “a kind of flu.” I would say also that many elected officials also probably interpreted proactive mask regulation on top of shutting down schools and businesses as adding insult to injury. Jump ahead three or four months and the initial seed of doubt about the purpose and efficacy of masks has blossomed into a fully grown weed patch of misinformation, misunderstanding, conspiracy, and anger. Many local, state, and federal officials across the US in particular have continued to sow misgivings and doubt about the use of masks in public spaces, bowing to intense pressure to reopen the service economy while helping to make the question of mask requirements a deeply divisive and partisan issue. This produces a visceral reaction to public mask regulations, especially in those places where the surge in cases has come later and people thought they were either protected by distance and knowledge, or assumed this was at best a trumped-up flu that would pass with time or, at worst, a hoax (an idea that is patently stupid on its face, and there’s no point in saying otherwise). Thus a requirement or even a suggestion to wear a mask coming in June or July seems like a day late and a dollar short to those who have watched the pandemic unfold somewhere else on television and the internet rather than next door or in their local ER. Mask regulations coming into force now are instead really public health policy finally catching up to the breakneck pace of actual events and a constantly emerging and evolving scientific and medical consensus about how to control the virus’ spread. Watch any number of videos — the contradictory refrain of “I am healthy” and “I have breathing problems and a mask could kill me” suggests a general lack of understanding of what the mask is for, how it helps, and why people are being asked to wear one.

Thus it is vital to state clearly that used properly, masks don’t suffocate you, but they also don’t stop viral particles from entering your body. Their function is to protect others, and when done properly, it definitely works. But the move from virile to viral in the context of novel coronavirus is a hard one for otherwise comfortable people to accept as it implies three things: that they themselves are possibly infected without showing symptoms; that they are potentially a vector for disease whether they know it or not; and that they must act with an abundance of caution without an immediate payoff because the goal is social rather than individual. Wearing a mask blunts the possibility of spreading disease, but requires everyone to make a small sacrifice in public by covering one’s mouth and nose. Clear public health guidelines about what the mask does and why, as well as uniform enforcement and constant reminders of the long-term benefits, are needed. That we don’t always get this in North America, and that what we see too often instead is an explosively visceral, often violent response from individuals and communities, indicates some deeper social pathologies at work.

Second then, the anti-mask position emerges from an absolute distrust in authority married to a black-and-white worldview that has become correlated with partisan affiliation. This is particularly the case in the US, though it is never far from view in Canada too, it just doesn’t get articulated with the same ferocity or zeal. In general, Canadian public health officials and policymakers have been more consistent on masks, and have just done overall a better job at coordinating virus response and education. The question of masks has not been so strongly affiliated with partisan identification or a binary liberal/conservative split as in the US (we might add Brazil and Russia to that, but the politics are different and I am not so familiar with them). In the US, the pro- and anti-mask positions become locked into a whole series of other signifiers that paint the world as a battleground between those who love their freedom and will fight to the death for it, and those who are craven liberal weaklings and followers who cave to the first suggestion of authoritarian control. According to the former, the latter are an existential threat to liberty because they enable a whole cascade of measures from on high that restrict and constrain. For the latter, the former are just dipshit rednecks who should learn science and stop pretending that they are the only people in the world who matter. Both are wrong, but in their own ways. Yet the former are wrong in a much more dangerous way amid this pandemic because that approach is informed by an absolutism built from several wildly incorrect critical assumptions: that a ‘foreign worldview’ espoused by a few is being imposed on the many; that the virus is a problem and a threat only in a few places (namely, urban areas that are both physically and morally corrupt, inhabited by weak liberals, immigrants, and minorities); that the threat posed by covid-19 is primarily individual rather than social; that the virus will succumb to seasonal variation and personal strength or vitality; that one must somehow consent to exposure for it matter anyway; and that even if it blazes through the whole of the American population and kills off a million or more people, well that’s just life. The last point is, in fact, the emerging official line on coronavirus response from the Trump administration, as it wages an all-out culture war on domestic forms of weakness requiring the collective public to numb itself to preventable death at a massive scale.

Third and finally, then, this highlights the particularly callous anti-social streak evident in the anti-mask position, borne of social and spatial comforts that are the result of structural advantages rooted in class and race. Where I live in southwestern Ontario, masks are now required when entering any business by regulation of the local health unit. This is generally speaking not a problem and most people comply without public meltdowns, at least from what I have seen and heard (the same can not exactly be said of Toronto, however). The vast majority of cases in this region, which had started climbing again in recent weeks, are linked to greenhouse operators in Essex County who are basically allowed to regulate themselves and hyper-exploit migrant workers coming from Mexico and the Caribbean on visas to work in the local agricultural industry. This is a longstanding problem, compounded by covid-19 spread through close contact in overcrowded bunkhouses and workers standing shoulder-to-shoulder in greenhouses and fields. In the weeks before that, community spread was evident but limited across Ontario and even Canada as a whole, with around 80 percent of this country’s 8700-plus covid-19 deaths (of more than 106,000 total cases) linked to long-term care facilities for the elderly. This was especially bad in Ontario, where longstanding, ongoing processes of deregulation and privatization of elder care mean that care workers, facilities, and the supplies they need are all stretched dangerously thin, exposing thousands to infection. But if you’re not in a long-term care home, or working at a greenhouse, the virus poses minimal threat right now. Out of sight, out of mind. So we are left with the very basic requirements of being vigilant about masking up and washing hands often. That is, until you remember the US border is right there, and the question of when it will open again to non-discretionary travel is of crucial importance to Canada, both because there is an economic hit to the border closure and because a re-opened border is likely to mean a second wave of infections.

In the US, where anti-mask activism and sentiment are especially strong, an ideology of ‘rugged individualism,’ the material realities of cutthroat competition and gross inequality, and the filtering of social needs and goals through the narrow economic demands of big business while only paying lip service to working people, have created a situation with much sharper and deadlier edges, in which the principle of “live and let die” is taken to an extreme. Problem 1 above is dragged headlong through problem 2 to compound the already existing pathological forms of individualism in problem 3 here. I’ve struggled with really thinking through this. The arguments against masks are based on pleas to the abstraction of individual liberty, the inversion of contemporary legal ideas of harassment (many of those in the videos I started with claim they are being harassed when asked to wear a mask), and just general whining about their personal comfort. They wallow in individual, isolated misery and fear while stating that one million deaths is an acceptable price for the return of football and the liberty of not wearing a mask to the store. How do you grapple with that level of self-indulgence and anti-social thinking?

Yet it seems to be the case that explosive reactions to mask regulations in viral videos making the rounds on social media are not the norm, and that most people in the US are wearing masks. At somewhere between 65 and 71 percent wearing masks in public, the US rate is actually higher than Canada’s, where only 58 percent reported wearing masks regularly in public in mid-June (this is certainly higher now with many local health units now mandating face coverings, as noted above). But if the basic question of mask or no mask is so deeply divisive, producing such intense and often violent reactions from those opposed, then some other, better approach to winning these people over to the wider cause is needed. You don’t need to undo the entirety of patriarchy, racism, and economic inequality to get people to wear masks, because that won’t be done in a day or even a generation. The goal is to get the pandemic under control now, especially in the US, because not doing so threatens the lives and well-being of millions of Americans and progress against the virus made elsewhere as well.

Header image from a January 29, 2020 article on CBC about children’s tantrums and learning to be patient as a parent; photo credit to Darby/Twenty20. Seemed apropos.