Based on currently available research, masks are a crucial component in our battle with COVID-19. Partnered with social distancing, they provide a powerful and (more importantly) realistic preventative strategy. Unfortunately, rather than being the objective study of our reality, even the concept of science has become a partisan battleground. For that, politicians are to blame.
The primary characteristic of an effective politician is the ability to shirk responsibility in order to avoid blame, while simultaneously taking credit for any subsequent successes. This cynical attribute has been on full display since the very beginning of this pandemic. Rather than using medical experts as one source of advice and developing policies which take other concerns into account (such as economic, financial, and sociological), policy decisions were implicitly deferred to the medical community. By the nature of their area of study, the success of medical scientists is measured by their ability to avoid the worst case scenario, which explains the consistently aggressive messaging which supports widespread lockdowns. However, what people must understand is that this is the very reaction we want from such experts. It is their job to protect us from medical calamity, and it is the job of our politicians to find a balance between avoiding such calamity and preventing similar negative outcomes in other areas of life. Without this balance, we may have initially avoided such catastrophe, but at what cost?
Another characteristic possessed by politicians is the ability to employ inconsistent messaging in a politically advantageous manner. While this is nothing new, the inability to provide a consistent or accurate narrative during this pandemic has done irreparable damage to the trust that must exist between a populace and its leadership. With initial announcements proclaiming that masks are ineffective or unnecessary, is it a surprise that many now refuse to accept them as necessary? With politicians condemning religious services or conservative rallies but praising mass protests, riots, or Pride parades, is it a surprise that many have decided that masks are not truly important? When our politicians, including the Trump administration, initially claim that masks are not needed in order to ensure adequate supply for hospitals, is it a surprise that many feel disrespected and misled by those they elected?
In addition to these actions, the most damaging element of the absurd debate that has erupted over the drastically simple act of wearing a mask is that it has become a political football. Rather than being seen as an apolitical object which can be used to prevent the transmission of potentially infected droplets to others, it has become a sign of virtue. For many on the Left, it has become a sign of compassion for others, with refusal to wear a mask in any scenario presented as proof of irredeemable immorality or ignorance. For many on the Right, a similar false virtue is now found in rejecting such signaling from the Left, and so many are refusing to wear a mask simply because it is the subject of this particular political battle. Turning such an impactful weapon against the spread of COVID-19 into a badge of political affiliation has rendered this weapon useless.
Finally, there is the issue of “freedom.” Social media is alight with posts, memes, and misinformation regarding the ineffectiveness of masks, the supposed health risks they create, or the conspiratorial theories that this is part of a deeper strategy to achieve population control. However, there is a more shallow and more prevalent feeling which presents a greater danger - the impression that masks are an attack on our freedom. The issue here isn’t whether or not requiring masks in some scenarios is inconvenient, frustrating, or even unnecessary. The issue is the insistence and obsession with the flawed notion that the slightest inconvenience is a fundamental attack on one’s individual freedom, with any potentially fatal impact on another person’s individual freedom judged as entirely inconsequential. By setting aside reason, compromise, and even compassion for the ultimate protection of relentless libertarianism, we lose what makes any civilization function - concern for others. While there is much the American Right must do to address this growing concern, we must also recognize the failure of conservative politicians who oppose any policy position from the Left using an overly simplistic argument of “freedom,” rather than acknowledging the philosophical nuance that is needed, now more than ever.
The data shows that the number of COVID-19 cases are rising. While the current death rates in many areas are either dropping or remaining stable, it would be naive to assume that we have seen the last of this virus. The goal here should be to find an effective balance between caution and normalcy, protecting both public health and economic health. The use of masks in indoor public areas is an effective and comparatively effortless part of this balance. The fact that masks have become a political battleground is a travesty for which the blame must fall upon our politicians.
I hope those who oppose masks are right. I fear they are wrong.