Why the mask controversy?

Ayesha Hussain, Contributing Writer

Since its introduction to the United States in late January, the COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered our country, decimated the economy, and resulted in nearly 200,000 deaths. And yet the most basic mode of protection against this disease – the face mask – has transformed from an anodyne prophylactic into a controversial political symbol.

The face mask traces back to ancient times in which they were created for rituals and ceremonies, but now masks are vital staples to the medical industry, as doctors and surgeons are seen wearing them regularly. Throughout history, masks have also had the intention of shielding the wearers from various hazards. Whether it retains this meaning in modern times is a different question. Some conservative voices, for instance, believe that wearing a mask deprives them of their liberties as a free citizen. Liberals, by contrast, by and large promote mask-wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

As a refresher – several countries around the world have managed to get the COVID-19 crisis under control, and are now safe to engage in public gatherings and economic re-openings with little issue. Meanwhile, in the United States, misinformation and disregard for social distancing protocols has allowed the virus to spread nearly unchecked. A massive division in health safety protocols has only deepened the crisis, with the current administration partially to blame for their effective non-response. Instead of leading by example and setting effective health safety regulations, U.S. President Donald Trump and his team are speaking against the usage of masks while abstaining from masks themselves; these actions are seen as a signal to Americans that they, too, are exempt from mask-wearing. Based on research conducted by Pew Research Center, in late June 61% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believe that the worst has already passed, while only 23% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say that the worst is behind us in terms of coronavirus-related problems. 

 The major parties also hold different opinions regarding the increase in COVID-19 cases, nearly six million of which have been confirmed in the United States. New research by Pew Research Center shows that about 62% of Republicans believe that more people are being tested leading to an increase in positive cases, while 80% of Democrats stand by the idea that there are more infections than a test increase could effectively explain. The key issue with such divisions is that they are not recognized by the virus; it has no political ideology, and does not respect the liberty of the American spirit. Thus it would be in the best interest of all to band together and wear a mask for the good of one’s fellow citizens.

This theoretical view has significant statistical backing. For example, states that are not imposing mask regulations, such as Florida and Texas, have seen huge spikes in cases recently. New York state, originally a hot spot for the virus mere months ago, has been able to drastically lower positive cases after New Yorkers began to comply with mask-wearing.

Politics has supplanted science and research in the mask conversation, and we should all be wary of such a change in the dialogue. A portion of Americans believes that wearing a mask will make them less of a member of their group and more of a member of another group. In reality, of course, masks do not reflect membership in an ideological out-group but a commitment to keeping our society safe. This is a sacrifice that is not only desirable but necessary to slow the spread of a deadly disease, and it is the duty of the American citizen to subordinate their baseless fears about “liberty” for this undeniable good.

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