With the election just over the horizon and coronavirus numbers spiking again, it’s hard to believe that a little piece of cloth should spark such controversy and division, especially when people in the know, mainly health experts, are encouraging you to wear a facial covering to not only protect yourself from an unprecedented viral outbreak, but to also help stop the spread. Yet here we are.
The face mask has somehow become a political symbol of sorts. Something to show your political affiliations as recently shown by a poll conducted by researchers at the Pew Research Center. Their poll showed that Democrats were largely in support of wearing face masks, where as Republicans were not. It’s become a clear divide between, right and left, red and blue, which have largely been ever present in American politics, however, this time the delineation is between science and politics.
Many argue that the Republican stance on the wearing of masks, or lack thereof, is being lead by the president, as, only until recently, has he relented on his earlier positions and started wearing a face covering. He spent months playing down the effectiveness of masks, refused to be photographed wearing one and even openly mocked his Democratic opponent Joe Biden for wearing one.
The battle lines have been drawn between those who wish to who defend and protect public safety and those who believe that the wearing of masks, especially if it is mandatory, is somehow an infringement on their rights as an individual and an attack on their personal liberty.
This is not a new phenomena in American society. When the smoking ban was introduced to public places like restaurants and bars or citizens were told they must wear a seat belt when driving, many Americans balked at these restrictions. However, over time people adhered to the safety guidelines as the true reason for them being in place was obvious. Not so with mask.
Many anti-maskers have become convinced that the wearing of masks is either useless or somehow the restrict breathing or worse still, cause you to breath back in carbon dioxide. This is a view clearly not shared by health professionals, with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, going as far as to say way back in July that if everyone in the US started wearing masks “right away”, the epidemic would be brought under control within two months.
One major stumbling block when it comes to convincing the unconvincable has been the fact that the advice for mask wearing in the early days of the pandemic changed and was sometimes confusing. The confusion arose because in the early stages of the outbreak, public-health officials feared that there would be a shortage of face coverings for health-care workers on the front line of fighting this quickly spreading virus.
The other reason for the early confusion was down to the changing scientific understanding of the virus and its transmission. Those decrying the wearing of masks might seem a large and vocal majority but in fact although they are most certainly vocal, they are actually in the minority. According to Covid-19 Behavior Tracker, almost 60% of people in the US said they would always wear a face mask when they go outside.
And studies have shown the effectiveness of wearing masks to combat the spread of the virus. A recent study compared the COVID-19 growth rate before and after mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It clearly showed a slowdown in daily COVID-19 growth rate. The first five days after a mandate, the daily growth rate slowed by 0.9 percentage-points compared to the five days prior to the mandate; at three weeks, the daily growth rate had slowed by 2 percentage-points.
The wearing of masks or not wearing of masks has just exposed an underlying problem in both American politics and society as a whole, hyper partisanship. The fact that the mask has become the symbol of this divide against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has now claimed the lives of just over 222,000 Americans is something we should all worry about, regardless of our political affiliations.