Masks Are Forever (2022 Mar)

by Barry A. Liebling

More than two years ago the Covid pandemic devastated the country. Millions of people caught the contagious disease, and while most recovered, it is tragic that many got seriously ill and died. Wearing masks in public was a highly unusual occurrence before Covid, but donning masks quickly became the required default for everyone.

In fairness it must be recognized that wearing a mask can potentially make you less likely to contract an illness (Covid is only one possible malady) or to transmit it to someone else. Healthcare professionals and ordinary people have routinely used masks for more than a century in a wide variety of settings – with mixed success.

However, since Covid contaminated daily life, the rationale for wearing masks has become overdetermined. There are important symbolic reasons to embrace the practice – or to despise it – that are independent of avoiding bacterial or viral infections.

Start with the issue of mask mandates – the legal requirement that people wear masks in particular settings. Look at how the mandates have operated and you can see that the rationale is definitely not based on eliminating microbial-caused diseases. The rule, not always enforced, in New York City where I live is that you enter a restaurant with a mask, remove it to consume your your meal, and put it back on as you leave the dining establishment. It is hard to imagine how masking while walking in or strolling out is consequential to physical health if everyone is bare-faced when they eat and talk.

People are split on their judgment of mask requirements. Many regard it as a foolish gesture that has no bearing on safety. But many applaud the practice because it is a demonstration of loyalty to the ruling regime. Going through the ritual is a signal that the participant is complying with the crowd – is part of the collective community.

What if putting on a mask is optional? Using a mask when it is not strictly required can certainly be motivated by the wish to avoid infections. But it also is a way to show the world whose side you are on – that you support the woke elite who are urging their followers (but not necessarily themselves) to mask-up.

Recall the history of how the expert authorities pushed masks for citizens. Early in the Covid crisis the official word was that masks are not effective – so don’t bother. Then the bosses said they told a “white lie” so that healthcare professionals would have enough masks to do their jobs. Then people were urged to wear cloth masks. Next, officials said one mask was not enough, so you should wear two masks. The same officials admitted the two-mask statement was actually a trick to get reluctant people to wear one mask. Recently hospital-quality masks were proclaimed to be necessary, because those made of cloth do not really work.

How do ordinary people react to the ever-changing advice regarding masks? There are two diametric takes. Some recognize that the “authoritative experts” either do not have the answers or are deliberately being deceptive. This fuels the “do your own research” movement. Listen to what the big shots say, but evaluate it for yourself, because they have proved they are not to be trusted.

But many people respond to the lack of expert reliability with renewed enthusiasm to be a follower. The authorities are the smartest people around, and if they cannot get it right every time it shows how tremendously complicated the mask issue is. Attempting to evaluate various policies for yourself is monumentally demanding. The best course is to comply with the official instructions of the cultural elite, and hope for the best.

The symbolism of wearing masks goes beyond health and pledging allegiance to the ruling class. Since ancient times masks have been associated with sinister secrets, with miscreants attempting to hide their identity, with people behaving in ways they would not if they were recognized. Unmasking is a term that denotes revealing a hidden truth that should not have been concealed.

Before Covid, wearing a mask was regarded as menacing and threatening. What has changed? Everyone is accustomed to masked people now. After the Covid crisis ends (the sooner the better) wearing masks will be regarded as acceptable. After all, you cannot blame a person for being careful about health. People with bad intentions will have an easier time hiding their identity. This is not a positive development.

When Covid panic ends if you decide to be a self-directed individual, honest and forthright in everyday life, you will don face masks only when they are required by law or when you believe they will make you safer. Alternatively, if you yearn to be part of the hive, you will seek anonymity and keep your face covered whenever you can. What should you do? Figure it out yourself.

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

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