For a country, whose presidential party ordinarily denies science at the expense of political points, the current state of the United States amid the Covid-19 pandemic is a given. Initially, it was a failure to accept the entire virus as a whole, repeatedly claiming ‘it will go away’. Now with over 150,000 deaths in the US alone, the culture of ‘anti-masking’ has taken center stage. Why the reluctance to adhere to something as simple as a face covering, when the science is clear? Is it really about the principle? The reality? The anti-mask movement has deep underlying causes, that point to the fundamentals of American culture, masked by phony politics.
Public health confusion early on
Admittedly, there was quite a bit confusion early on regarding the effectiveness of masks. In the early stages of wave 1, public health officials deemed masks unnecessary. Granted, when Covid-19 initially spread, the lack of available PPE for providers was incredibly low. Hence the professional recommendation to save the professional equipment for the professionals.
It was not until quite recently the CDC strongly recommends face coverings in places where social distancing otherwise is not always possible. However, the US’ ‘watch and wait’ approach proved disastrous in comparison to other (primarily Asian) countries early masked mandates. Of course, robust testing was also a major contributor to mitigating the dangerous spread. Yes, the evidence regarding asymptomatic transmission in the spring was certainly lower than now, however that is the essence of science. I.e., a ‘building the plane while flying the plane’ approach (largely due to decades of underfunding public health programs), leaving professionals to play catchup. As professionals conduct more research, they will continue to provide more logical recommendations. Like, how masks significantly decrease transmission.
Despite 150,000 plus lives, the science and the obvious benefit masks provide, the US government has yet to implement nationwide masking protocol. In fact, many Americans are responding to the life-saving recommendation with anti-masking anger, outrage, and rebellion. Claiming a masking mandate hinders breathing, restricts civil liberties, and is therefore ‘un-American’. However, the root cause of anti-masking runs deeper than just the ‘Americans don’t like being told what to do’ justification.
Root cause of the anti-masking movement
Freedom of personal choice is arguably the most fundamental principle here in the US. Therefore, any limit on behavioral freedom is therefore an automatic threat to freedom, even if it will save lives. The mixed public health advice early on in addition to the slight inconvenience masking is, has resulted in the conflict. Why has masking caused such pandemonium solely in the US? Because there has not been any similar outcry against public health guidance among other (European, Asian) countries. The source of the inconvenience Americans feel while wearing a mask stems from the culture dedicated to comfort.
American inability to compromise
Americans simply do not like being uncomfortable. The lifestyle up until now, is based on one principle; comfort and relaxation. When it comes to clothing, jeans and casual wear is the norm, regardless of profession. Online shopping, takeout, fast food, sweat pants are all American staples. The vast majority of competitive industries that power this country (health care, finance, accounting, consulting), are based on one principle: standardize your role to meet organization needs with little human effort and maximum reward. To make the role more comfortable, satisfy all needs with virtually no cost. Tyler Cowen writes in his book ‘The Complacent Class: the self-defeating quest for the American Dream,’ that Americans general laziness, as shown in decreased risks, and reluctant career moves, hinders growth.
If the culture is solely about comfort, what is that saying exactly? Elizabeth Shove, Professor at University of Lancaster projects once comfort is normalized, ‘it becomes standardized.’ Meaning, anything that is not standardized (i.e. something different), sparks an uncomfortable feeling which is ultimately considered ‘bad’. As a culture, Americans generally feel a level of entitlement when it comes to everyday comfort. On the other hand, those who might stand with the unknown are perceived as “inhibiting free speech and perhaps making us less tolerant.” Hence where the anti-masking wave takes center stage. However, there might very well be an underlying arrow connecting this entitled comfort to this nation’s recurring difficulty in facing major problems (Covid-19). Many Americans are unable to even temporarily be uncomfortable by wearing a mask, for the sake of thousands of lives.
Why politicize scientific fact?
The majority of anti-maskers, are self-proclaimed conservatives, who adhere to the far right. Until very recently, Donald Trump refused to wear a mask, claiming the Americans who do choose to wear one are doing so to purposefully express disapproval of him as president. Therefore, his supporters largely feel wearing face-masks restrict personal liberty. Those anti-masking are likely the same individuals who openly deny science, strong second amendment supporters, gun holders, and support defunding of public services for the sake of ‘personal freedom.’ Recent studies conducted by the Pew Research Center claims, Republicans are more likely to oppose a mask mandate and openly deny scientific data. Out of the 18 states who have mandated mask wearing in public places, only 2 of which have Republican leaders. To take this polarization even further, some Republican leaders are even threatening to withhold coronavirus relief packages if state governments do issue a mask mandate.
The highest rates of mask use (and enforcement) are in Northeastern states; all of which have the lowest rates of newer cases. The same states who took a cautious approach to reopen and prioritize the health of the public over individuals. Rejecting face-masks unavoidably means more Covid-19 deaths. Wearing a mask, socially distancing, and proper hand washing can decrease transmission up to 85%.
If our nation’s top Republican majority leaders start supporting instead of ridiculing the science, and normalize public health precautions; the US may finally join the rest of the post-pandemic world. Claiming masks are “sign of weakness,” does nothing but further polarize this nation when the scientific facts are crystal clear.
Do your part
Given the politics and corporate interests driving the conversation, the United States will probably not see a mass distribution of any Covid-19 related vaccine for some time. And simply waiting for a vaccine to become available and not taking part in any other safety precaution is foolish. The principle of herd immunity does not only apply to vaccines, but to masks as well. If 95% of the people wear a mask, the 5% who do not, will still be protected. However, this principle only works if everyone participates.
Until a vaccine is even remotely realistic, do your part; wear a mask. Real nationalism is undertaking a slight inconvenience for the sake of our country. The anti-masking culture is a fake excuse powered by fear and reactance to the unknown. Anti-maskers claim of ‘Me first’ absolutely does not justify civil liberties at the expense of 150,000 lives lost. Face masks are less to protect oneself, more to protect others. Do it for your country.