An unnecessary mask culture war

Who started the Mask Culture War?

In some ways, this “mask culture war” isn’t surprising. I have long been aware that Americans and Westerners in general are often ambivalent about the public wearing of masks. So it shouldn’t surprise me that the act of wearing masks would arouse so much derision and resistance. But the negative reaction to masks is still overblown and unnecessary.

First, one myth that needs to be debunked right away is that “Democrats wear masks and Republicans don’t.” According to a poll by The Hill/HarrisX, posted online May 22, 52% of Republicans, 83% of Democrats and 65% have said that masks should be mandatory either both indoors or outdoors, or just indoors. Overall, 40% of the public believes that masks should be mandatory both outdoors and indoors, and 28% believe it should be mandatory just indoors. And 31% of Republicans, 13% of Democrats and 24% of independents say that masks should be recommended but not mandatory.

Republican North Dakota Gov Doug Burgum said, “”I would really love to see in North Dakota that we could just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through, where they’re creating a divide — either it’s ideological or political or something — around mask versus no mask,” Burgum, a Republican, said during a news conference Friday in Bismarck. “This is a, I would say, senseless dividing line.”

Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, also a Republican, referenced Burgum’s statement, saying, “I’ve watched that clip a couple times, and this is not about politics. This is not about whether you’re liberal or conservative, left or right, Republican, Democrat,” DeWine continued. “It’s been very clear what the studies have shown you. You wear the mask not to protect yourself so much as to protect others, and this is one time when we truly are all in this together. What we do directly impacts others.”

There is some evidence that the protests against social distancing, stay at home orders, and other restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19 are, to a large extent, astroturf efforts funded by a variety of right-wing entities. But they are also tapping into high levels of economic anxiety. The economic freefall in the U.S. and across the globe has been unprecedented.

And compared to other countries around the world, U.S. efforts to help shelter people against the economic impacts of the coronavirus have been minimal. The U.S. government has allowed millions to go on unemployment, overwhelming systems designed for much smaller numbers of unemployed. While the U.S. is kicking in $600 per week for each person on unemployment, not everyone losing work is able to get unemployment insurance, and two months after the economic crisis has started, I know of many people still waiting for their first benefit check.

So certainly there is real and legitimate frustration out there, but the mask culture war aims its guns at the wrong target. The virus is invisible, but the economic pain isn’t. Even I people know who support the social distancing and other virus-related restrictions have asked, “Do you actually know anyone who has had the coronavirus?” As for me, I personally do know someone who survived COVID-19.

The ire raised at government supporting social distancing restrictions should really be directed towards the federal government for its lack of support for individual citizens, the unemployed, and small businesses. As I said before, U.S. government support for small businesses and individuals has been much weaker than that of other countries. But, seeing little prospect for health from the federal government, the debate has become warped into a re-open early versus re-open later type of argument. If individuals and small businesses were getting adequate support to weather the financial impact of the pandemic, this kind of debate would not be happening. One side feels threatened by the pandemic, and the other side fears the financial fallout from the pandemic.

As demonstrated by the poll above, the mask culture war isn’t necessarily a partisan debate. Some people seem to want it to be because it helps their political agenda. I think the wise thing to do in this case is to show empathy for the other person’s situation and try to redefine the terms of the debate so that it doesn’t become a question of health vs. economic security. You may or may not succeed in that, but at least you can say that you’ve tried to extract the discussion from the zero-sum game that it’s being made out to be.