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Un-Masking the Pandemic

The debate surrounding masks in the time of COVID-19.

The use of masks provoked unease at the beginning of the pandemic. While some argue that they find the masks uncomfortable, others remain skeptical about their efficiency as they claim that using masks are instruments of government oppression. 

The pandemic has undoubtedly brought this point home as policies on masks have proven extremely divisive. In the United States, anti-mask movements are highly politicised. Polarisation remains strong in America which perpetuates political bias despite the increasing knowledge of the virus and the efficacy of wearing a mask. Thus, in the early stages of the pandemic, Democrats insisted on wearing masks while some Republicans opposed the necessity of them.

 

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Even still, in Europe, the divide is more evident. Countries such as Slovakia, Bosnia and the Czech Republic introduced mandatory face coverings early on. At the same time, the UK urged the public not to wear face masks to ensure enough supplies for healthcare workers. Citizens initially remained reluctant to wear masks, but the rising cases and proven efficiency of masks forced people and governments to reconsider policies. This contradictory discourse created even more uncertainty and mistrust in institutions that fed into anti-mask rhetoric. In Britain, the increasing number of anti-maskers continues to mix health messages with conspiracy theories that include connections between masks, tracking and 5G. In Germany, the anti-mask movement is strong and has been infiltrated by the far-right.

The lack of consensus on masks across medical spectrums fulfills populist refrain by exploiting genuine scientific lack of certainty. 

Despite the knowledge that the virus is prevented from spreading by the use of masks, one is left asking why do we question wearing a mask in the first place? The growing divide between opponents and proponents of masks should have subsided; however, masks have become a new symbol of partisan politics. Hence, reactions to the mask are embedded between societies with a high level of acceptable individualism versus those with an ethos of collective responsibility.

 

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For example, The United States versus Japan. Japan took to wearing masks decades ago, and it never went out of fashion after the Spanish flu, due to Japan’s fondness for social propriety.  Asian societies wore masks long ago, whereas most western societies believe masks to be an overreaction or rejection of casual interactions. 

Instead of looking to countries who had been through the SARS epidemic and used masks, western governments continued to fail to implement measures, which proved problematic. There is the chance that politicians in the United States and Europe, lulled by decades of stability in their countries after World War II, simply didn’t want to recognise the threat. Unlike Asian countries such as India, South Korea, and Thailand, western nations’ failures to implement measures quickly proved detrimental. 

Now, when reflecting on the last few months, we find a rather bleak picture with political problems, pain, and divisions that have rocked the stability in certain nations. 

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