Get Past the Masks (2020 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

We are in the midst (Beginning? Middle? End?) of the Covid-19 pandemic. In New York City most people are wearing masks. The rationale is that a mask protects the wearer from inhaling infectious material from someone else. Furthermore, it prevents the person using the mask from spreading disease to others. To the extent that Covid-19 is lurking at multiple hard-to-identify locations throughout the city, is highly infectious, and is potentially deadly, there is a rationale for wearing a mask.

However, if the genuine risk of contracting a terrible illness is small (as it is for the ordinary flu), the justification for requiring all citizens to wear masks evaporates. Unless there is reliable, valid evidence that masks are life-saving, people should not be compelled to use them.

The problem is that as of this writing the answers to key questions remains unknown. Is it generally safe to go without a mask if you are strolling outdoors? Perhaps. In a crowded environment is it necessary to don a medical-quality mask to be protected, or does covering your nose and mouth with an ordinary scarf suffice? “Experts” claim to know the answers, but their poor record of predicting pandemic-related events puts a damper on their credibility.

When the physical threat from Covid-19 is reduced to a manageable level, life can become more pleasant and wearing masks will be an occasional – not mandatory – occurrence. Some will decide to wear masks nearly all the time – as was the case before the epidemic. But most people will recall – without fondness – their mask-wearing experiences during the health crisis.

Unfortunately the “all-safe” signal will come from government officials who have demonstrated repeatedly that their directives are largely arbitrary. They might be hyper cautious to a fault and wait a very long time before they give citizens permission to return to normal living. Alternatively, they might be reckless and grant special mask exemptions to people who are engaged in political activity approved by the leftist elite (protesting for social justice is always acceptable).

So as individual citizens we are stuck. We have to wait for permission to discontinue the masks in public, and we know that those in authority are progressive ideologues who delight in bossing people around.

Note that the discomfort of mask wearing is primarily psychological. I have learned to put a barrier over my nose and mouth every time I leave the house, and it is not very difficult. But I cannot discount the symbolic problem with masks.

Encountering a masked person makes me suspicious and uncomfortable. Wearing a mask has a long tradition among people with bad intentions of concealing their identity. Since ancient times criminals have worn masks when they engage in nefarious activities. The sight of a mask is a signal to be on guard and alert. Does that person have malicious intentions? You have to investigate.

The expression “to unmask” signifies getting to the truth – usually a truth that is not benign. When a person, an organization, or a policy is unmasked malicious motives are revealed. The observer is relieved to see the genuine nature of who or what was previously masked. And the unmasked entity is not judged sympathetically.

In the current health crisis where masks are ubiquitous the traditional symbolism is scrambled. Now a person who walks about without a mask is an outlaw (or at least anti-social) – putting other people’s health in danger. So masks, that have always informed people to be wary, are now a requirement. Notice what this does to personal relations. In today’s world the sight of anyone, with or without a mask, is a cue to be suspicious.

The end of the pandemic and government-enforced public directives cannot come soon enough. Physical health and protection against disease is a supremely important objective. And so is psychological well being. Let’s get past the masks.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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