We are often told that anti-epidemic masks should not be politicised. Though often well intentioned, this admonition falls short of taking masks seriously as social and historical objects. For, in assuming these to be inherently neutral prophylactic devices whose politicisation is simply an epiphenomenon, this narrative fails to understand and acknowledge that the historical institution of anti-epidemic masks has been an irreducibly political and politicised one. Emblems of Qing medico-juridical innovation in 1910, contested symbols of a medical globalisation during the flu pandemic of 1918, showcases of Maoist medical modernity in the 1950s Patriotic Health Campaigns, and trademarks of Hong Kong’s resilience during the 2003 SARS pandemic – anti-epidemic masks resurface time and again in modern history not simply as devices against contagion, but most importantly as tools and images of political articulation and transformation.
What is really troubling about the aforementioned admonition is that by focusing on the question of the politicisation of masks it neglects tackling the real problem with governmental approaches to these devices in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic: the manner in which masks are reduced from complex social technologies into teleological means whose value and usefulness are to be judged solely in terms of a pre-defined end: stopping the transmission of the virus. It is within this broader erroneous framework that we need to understand the recent debacle around the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding mask-wearing among fully vaccinated people in the USA.
On July 27, 2021 and following more than two months of sustained domestic and international critique, the CDC reversed its previous advice (May 13, 2021) stating that fully vaccinated people in the USA need no longer wear masks indoors. The CDC’s May decision had been at odds with the WHO’s recommendation to continue wearing masks indoors regardless of whether one is fully vaccinated or not, and had been particularly criticised for being released at a time that scientific evidence were already demonstrating both the Delta variant’s much-increased transmissibility, and reduced ability in some vaccines to protect even fully vaccinated people against the particular variant. Given this, one is tempted to ask if the CDC’s decision to make this recommendation was driven by a desire to create a further “incentive” for vaccination, which could perhaps particularly appeal to that segment of vaccine-hesitant people that dislike or mistrust masks. Whether this was or simply appears to have been the case, sociologically speaking, it constituted a very risky gamble. For it essentially portrayed masks as something that burdens our personal and social lives. If no longer wearing a mask is presented as a “reward” for being vaccinated, then wearing masks is in turn configured as something that may be necessary under certain conditions (e.g. the surge of the Delta variant) but which is in and of itself essentially undesirable, restrictive, unbecoming or annoying. This is a major failure in public health communication, as ideally we should be aiming for masks to continue to be worn not simply for the duration of the pandemic, but also after it. First, this could lead to a habitual wearing of masks as an everyday accessory, as is the case in much of East Asia; something that in post-pandemic conditions could see the reduction of seasonal flu, but also increased protection against environmental pollution. Second, an unconditionally positive approach to masks could create a social environment where if – or rather when – a new pandemic of an airborne disease breaks out, people would more readily adopt masks to protect themselves and others.
By contrast, maintaining a negative image of the mask as something “naturally” burdensome fosters situations such as England’s abandonment of mask-wearing regulations tout court, as part of its much-criticised “Freedom Day” earlier this summer. Such populist and scientifically ill-advised moves are the result not so much of the politicisation of masks, but more importantly of a failure to embrace these devices in their two-fold nature: as prophylactic devices, and as material and symbolic objects that have the potential of helping us overcome social divisions over the more complex aspects of the pandemic and pandemic-response and unite the greater part of society in a common struggle against this pandemic. It is here that the CDC’s May recommendation failed a second time, for, intentionally or not, it reduced masks to simply prophylactic devices, when in reality they are objects with a much more complex and important social function in the context of a pandemic. For more than simply preventing the transmission of pathogens, wearing masks has the potential of showing that the one wearing them cares for others; that whether or not one is at risk, she/they/he is happy to wear a mask to both reduce being a risk to others, and to show her/their/his solidarity to those still at risk.
Last Saturday, I was visiting Kinross, a beautiful old Scottish town on the shore of Loch Leven, and I happened upon a farmer’s market on the high street. Although Scotland is now at Level 0, and masks have never been mandatory outdoors, the vast majority of people browsing and shopping wore masks. The feeling of hope, trust and gratitude I felt towards my fellow citizens at that moment was overwhelming, especially given the constant “Freedom Day” messaging from a large part of the mass media in the UK. Here were people, both locals and visitors, defying “no more masks” populism and demonstrating in a subtle but unambiguous manner not just common sense, but also a deep sense of civic responsibility and social solidarity. These people are not “cowering” from the virus – the phrase used by the UK’s new Secretary of Health in a tweet he later apologised for and deleted. And mask-wearing is not an index of anxiety, fear or being unable to move on. Instead it fosters ways of moving on as social beings rather than simply as individuals; ways that are based neither on fantasies of a “return” to a lost, pre-pandemic “normality”, nor on ahistorical expectations of major socio-economic shifts mechanistically resulting from the pandemic.
In spite of their detractors, a year and a half into the pandemic, masks are proving quite good at helping people everywhere around the world to speak truth to power, uphold public health standards, and protect and care for one another, often against the callous and market-oriented “grain” of pandemic response policy (or the lack of it). Could it be that, just over 100 years from its emergence, the anti-epidemic mask presents itself today not simply as a bulwark against contagion, but also as a passageway towards and at the same time a dialectical image of the “communal luxury” of a truly public health? In the political laboratory that is the Covid pandemic, this is something we need to start taking ethnographically seriously.
Christos Lynteris is Professor of Medical Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. His work examines epistemological and biopolitical aspects of epidemics with a particular focus on zoonotic diseases. His recent publications include the books Ethnographic Plague (Palgrave 2016), Human Extinction and the Pandemic Imaginary (Routlege 2019), and, co-authored with Lukas Engelmann, Sulphuric Utopias: A History of Maritime Sanitation (MIT Press, 2020). He was the PI of the ERC-funded project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic and is currently the PI of the Wellcome Investigator Award funded project The Global War Against the Rat and the Epistemic Emergence of Zoonosis. Twitter: @visualplague
Image: Masks, Chris Zúniga