Commentary / World

America's face mask ambivalence

by Kent E. Calder

Kyodo

Masks make sense, especially in a pandemic, as the experience of Japan and many other nations suggests. Doctors say they prevent transmission of viruses amid community spread, especially from asymptomatic infected people, while keeping the wearer safe.

Goldman Sachs adds that wearing masks would also aid economic recovery, with a national mask mandate serving as a substitute for the lockdowns that could otherwise subtract as much as 5 percent from U.S. gross domestic product over the coming year.

The negative consequences of not wearing masks are plain for all to see. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, long very casual in his mask-wearing, almost died of COVID-19. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is infected with the coronavirus right now, as is former U.S. presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, who lost his race for election as governor of my home state, Utah, earlier this month, after he had to largely suspend campaigning after falling ill.

Despite all these positive aspects to mask-wearing, and the adverse health consequences of not doing so, at least 10 percent of Americans, according to recent polls, refuse to wear masks at all, and a third or more fail to wear them consistently in public places.

When California's governor, Gavin Newsom, ordered the wearing of masks in public places and high-risk areas late last month, the sheriffs of four California counties simply refused to enforce his order.

And in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, the county public health officer, Nichole Quick, actually resigned after several intense weeks of unsuccessfully trying to enforce her countywide face-mask order.

As the 2020 presidential campaign moves into full swing, there are signs that no-mask gatherings may grow even more common — the ominous upsurge in COVID-19 cases notwithstanding. U.S. President Donald Trump held an indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, during late June that was largely non-mask, although masks were offered to participants.

Several Trump campaign staff and Secret Service agents appear to have been infected, while former presidential candidate Herman Cain, another Tulsa participant, also tested positive for the virus.

Trump held similar outdoor rallies at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and in New Hampshire soon thereafter, which were similarly unmasked, albeit with masks available.

The president himself had persistently refused to appear in public with a mask but did so for the first time earlier this month when he visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in suburban Washington. Vice President Michael Pence has recently begun to do so.

Even where Americans do end up wearing masks, as Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden and even many Republican governors consistently do, many Americans reject the notion that masking should be mandatory.

Just as in the case of gun control, American grassroots sentiment is strong, especially in the Sun Belt, that the decision not to wear a mask, like the right to bear arms, is a personal one, relating closely to human rights.

So why are Americans so ambivalent about face masks? The answer today is deeply embedded in our national history, politics and even geography. Getting Americans to wear masks consistently will not be easy, presenting avoidable yet unsettling potential challenges for global affairs.

In an America that has from its early pioneer days valued openness and transparency, masked people like the Ku Klux Klan of the early post-Civil War period have traditionally seemed sinister.

Until the current pandemic, customers in American banks were often forbidden from wearing masks as they obscure facial characteristics and have often been favored by bank robbers in the past.

Even after the pandemic began, prominent U.S. health authorities discouraged the use of masks for several weeks, although the unstated reason was to safeguard limited supplies for health professionals.

Many Americans, who value the right to make their own decisions, thus feel that government authorities are inconsistent and sometimes hypocritical in insisting on face masks.

This widespread populist sentiment, especially prominent among young people feeling invulnerable in the face of a disease that disproportionately ravages the elderly, is being artfully exploited by conservative politicians, especially in the South and the West.

Going maskless, like gun ownership, has gained a macho cachet, and become a political symbol of resistance to the "shame police," as conservative commentator Laura Ingraham recently termed mask-requirement enforcers.

Trump himself had not until recently worn masks in public, although he consistently denied any political intent. He did, however, suggest to The Wall Street Journal in June that he thought some mask-wearers were making their own politically charged statements of opposition to him, rather than regarding masks purely as a preventive measure.

There is also a geographical angle to American mask-wearing. As Japanese know so well, face masks can be hot and often uncomfortable, especially in the summer. Not surprisingly, mask-wearing is less common in the hot and sometimes humid south and west of the United States than in the north and east.

According to recent polls, only 40 percent of respondents in Arizona consistently wear masks in public, compared to nearly 80 percent in Massachusetts.

Once Americans do understand and accept the medical importance of masks, they can be quite creative in designing and making them. Since the pandemic exploded in March, all sorts of sports masks and patriotic masks decorated with the stars and stripes have begun to appear, as well as designer and color-coordinated creations. A whole cottage industry of home-made masks for both adults and children has also emerged.

As so many times in recent years, the COVID-19 crisis illustrates both the contrasts of national approaches across the Pacific and also the potential for trans-Pacific learning.

Japanese may find the innovations in American mask design and mask-wearing of interest or at least amusement. And there is no question that Americans, in this hot and humid season, could find Japanese innovations in cool and light-weight mask design of real value as well.

Kent E. Calder is vice dean for faculty affairs and international research cooperation at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and director of the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at SAIS.

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