Sept. 11, 2020 | By Sam Pfeifer | Illustration by Xixi Qin
I recently saw someone on Instagram share a post about how wearing a mask should not be considered a political act. As the United States continues to deal with a devastating pandemic and more Americans die every day, the last thing we need is to conflate public health with politics. However, by writing off masks as apolitical, we devalue their potential political worth.
Most members of the media accredit the politicization of mask wearing to a loyal, loud contingency of Trump supporters and to the president himself. In an interview with National Public Radio in late May, a young man in Alabama said he was not compelled to wear a mask if the president refused to wear one. The issue of mask-wearing was certainly politicized when armed citizens across the country were ‘peacefully’ protesting the overreaching state governments as they implemented necessary stay-at-home orders and mask mandates. At that moment, people began perceiving mask-wearing as a political issue – although I am of the opinion that it always was one.
There is evidence of a stark partisan divide when it comes to mask-wearing. According to the Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index, the percentage of Democrats who reported wearing a mask all the time when leaving home rose from 49 percent between April 10 and May 4 to 65 percent between May 8 and June 22. For Republicans during the same period, the percentage rose from 29 percent to 35 percent. Whether or not we want masks to be political, the reality surrounding masks is partisan.
Rather than running from this politicization, more people should embrace this reality. In progressive circles, there is an enormous opportunity to reframe the conversation surrounding the politics of masks and to support pursuits of justice and equity.
I shouldn’t be thrown to the social media wolves because I consider mask-wearing to be a political act. I am not peddling anti-science or anti-big government rhetoric, which has underlined much of the anti-mask movement in the United States. While I concede the inextricable link between political and partisan, my intention is not to intensify a partisan divide. Instead, I view the political as the engaged — as the active. I also understand the political to be cognizant of circumstances surrounding them.
As additional research furthers our understanding of the drastic health inequalities related to COVID-19, we are beginning to recognize the structural reasons why the disease impacts certain people more. We can also look at the relationship between COVID-19 and health inequalities from a flipped perspective. The economic and political fallout from the pandemic will exacerbate many inequalities moving forward. An article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health this May points to the many ways that COVID-19 will further socio-economic divides; sudden economic shock, unemployment, and austerity measures all have well-established links to heightened health issues, especially for those most at-risk.
We should not separate the political consequences of COVID-19 from the acts which slow its transmission. Our decision to wear a mask has consequences that will impact millions of people. The heightened problems of inequality due to COVID-19 intersect with the Black Lives Matter movement’s call for more racial equity and justice. Especially now, it would be foolish for us to not recognize the collective political responsibility we hold. Masks aren’t a necessary burden, but a vital political act. Whether or not they heal our society’s wounds, they serve as a reminder that we must help protect those who are in need. Masks are a vessel to imagine a more free and just society.