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Analysis: Unfortunately, to mask or not to mask is the question for our time; choices rife with symbolism

By Jan Hillard
NKyTribune data editor

Scientific fact can be cold and inconvenient. Viral protection is related to wearing a face mask.

Physicians and medical personnel have worn them for well over 100 years. I have never heard of someone who is wheeled into the operating room demanding the surgeons remove their masks or refuse to wear a mask if asked by the medial team. It is simply in the realm of the outrageous. Yet the wearing of a mask in the middle of one of greatest pandemics we have ever faced has become a contested issue. As a society how did we got to this place? What are the ideological and political reason for not wearing a mask? Understanding this may help us understand what appears to be a powerful partisan and ideological divide.

This mask dilemma is not our first. In 1918 the Spanish flu ravaged San Francisco. In response, the city passed an ordinance in October 1918 that required every resident or visitor to wear a face mask while in public or when in a group of 2 or more people. No-mask wearers were charged with disturbing the peace. While mask-wearing compliance was high (80%), push back was equally strong.

In response the Anti-Mask League was formed. Claiming violation of individual rights, the League was able to get the city ordinance repealed. Yet as flu cases rose dramatically, the ordinance was re-instated. The story, the justifications, the ordinance, and the resurgence of the virus are eerily familiar.

Democrats and Republicans hold differing opinions on the threat of COVID 19 and individual actions to prevent its spread. On June 24, 2020, the Pew Research Center released a study, “Republicans and Democrats Move Even Further Apart in Coronavirus Concerns” based upon a large, representative sample of 4,708 citizens. One of the most fundamental differences between Democrats and Republicans is found in how each sees the course of the virus. Here, 60% of Republicans believe the worst is behind us compared to 87% of Democrats who believe the worst is yet to come. In addition, only 44% of Republicans believe “the actions of ordinary people make a difference” as opposed to 73% of Democrats. Given the polarization in these opinions, it makes sense that Democrats and Republicans would promote differing behaviors, be attracted to differing thought leaders, and see the world of COVID 19 through very different lenses. Here are some of the partisan differences documented by the Pew study.

Republican and Democratic opinions toward the virus have remained virtually unchanged since the pandemic began. Measured by Pew first in early April and recently in mid-June, only 38% of Republicans believe they can get the virus while 62% of Democrats believe this. Both in April and again in June, 58% of Republicans support new federal aid to combat the virus, while 87% support additional aid. When asked if individual actions affect the spread of the virus, 44% of Republicans offered the opinion that they do not. 73% of Democrats agreed that individual actions make a difference. In terms of behaviors, in March, 29% of Republicans said they were comfortable eating in a restaurant. By June 65% said they would do this. Similar party differences were found in terms of attending a party, going to the grocery store, and visiting someone’s home.

The difference and durability of these findings over several months speaks to underlying ideological factors that have distinguished Democrats and Republicans long before the appearance of COVID 19. The actions required to minimize the spread of the virus (i.e. mask wearing, social distancing) brought to the surface, for Republicans, core beliefs about personal freedom, the potential for fascism, loyalty toward the President, doubts about science, and collective action. The Fox News analyst Laura Ingram makes this point when she warns that “social control over large populations is achieved through fear and intimidation, as well as suppression of free thought”. (Politico, June 4, 2020). Likewise, for Democrats, core beliefs about the public good, government’s role in people’s lives, public spending, and the balance between individual freedom and societal security were activated by actions required to combat the virus. Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio touches on these beliefs saying, “it’s a shame that science has become so political. Not wearing a mask is not a sign of rebellion…we are collectively better than that…it is a simple thing to protect the health and lives of our neighbors.” Unearthing and reminding ourselves of these core Republican and Democratic beliefs helps us understand how Republicans and Democrats are so polarized in the face of this national threat. The foundational beliefs we each hold make up our political geology. Our core beliefs are buried deep in our psyche and are resistant to change. We are seeing this play out with COVID 19.

Nowhere are differences of opinion between Americans more visible than mask-wearing. The Pew research found that only 23% of Republicans believe masks should always be worn while 70% of Democrats hold this view. Beyond referring to core ideological positions, such as the “Constitutional right” not to wear a mask or the “Constitutional right” not to follow governmental dictates, additional factors are mentioned by those who will not comply with wearing a mask. These include: the belief that COVID 19 is a hoax, that the Democrats brought this about, that masks are made in China and therefore secretly attract the virus, and the science behind mask-wearing is fake. Not wearing a mask is often woven into anti-COVID and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories promulgated by the far right.

In some cases, these beliefs are accompanied by political rebellion, intimidation and even murder. In May of this year a store security guard in Flint Michigan was murdered for refusing a man without a mask entry to a Family Dollar store. In San Antonio a bus passenger confronted and attacked a bus driver who asked him to wear a mask. Various right-wing news sources (i.e. InfoWars) are working to encourage and legitimize violent resistance to mask requirements and related governmental ordinances. To wear or not wear a mask has reached violent proportions.

Wearing a mask or not wearing a mask is a behavior pregnant with symbolism. And while a number of Republican elected officials have just this week endorsed mask-wearing, they are unfortunately too late to the party. Their persistent resistance is accompanied by the spread of the cases and subsequent deaths, as well as second-wave economic crisis. While we cannot be sure if their behavior is causal, we do know that leading by example matters. The unfortunate question of to wear or not wear a mask deeply divides us and leaves us as a nation even more vulnerable to this protracted battle of our lifetime.

Jan Hillard, Ph.D., is data editor of the NKyTribune and Faculty Emeriti of Northern Kentucky University.

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