Credit: Tim Dennell Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0

Clinging to face coverings masks a deeper fear than just Covid

How do you feel about the expected easing of facemask requirements? That was the question the Irish Times asked yesterday, in a place of high prominence on its website. The question was shared repeatedly by the company across its various platforms. Not to be undone, the Journal, that avatar of covid caution, commissioned a poll of its online readers: Will you still wear a face mask when it’s no longer mandatory? they asked. Radio stations, not to be left out, weighed in, with several broadcasters inviting their listeners to text in their hopes and fears about the proposed relaxation of rules around masking.

Claire Byrne, of course, got in on the act as well:

The tone of all of this is very interesting: Inherent to it is the notion that it is legitimate to be terrified and frightened of a return to normal. It is not.

It is not necessary here to recount all the arguments for, and against, masks as a pandemic management tool. Suffice to say that if there were compelling evidence that masks work at the population level to reduce the number of covid infections, we would be hearing it cited in every radio debate, and reading about it in every newspaper. No such evidence exists, to be cited. It simply is not there. That is why you do not hear about it.

What we hear, in place of evidence, is a mixture of emotion and belief: Advocates of continued masking quite openly say things like “it does not cost much to be careful” and “masks are not really an imposition” and “I just feel safer with one on”.

The psychological reasons why a mask makes a person feel safer are not hard to understand. A mask is, after all, at the most basic level, a barrier. It creates a distance, and a boundary. At the basest level, it means your breath has to pass through at least two layers of defence before it can invade my mouth. We have been conditioned, through the pandemic, to think in this way: That breathing in the presence of a stranger is by itself a kind of invasion. That we are entitled to our own, clean, purified, never before used, oxygen.

This psychology extends, often, beyond masks. Note, for example, the zero covid types who have shifted in recent weeks away from calling for endless restrictions to calling for advanced air filtration and purification systems: It’s got a kind of new age, “only the best air for my body” feel to it. It’s not unlike those people who buy bottled water, and then pour it through one of those water filtration jugs.

And that, perhaps, is the worst part of the pandemic: it has conditioned a reasonably large section of the population to think of other people as intrinsically dirty, and intrinsically dangerous. It appears to have convinced people that safety can only be achieved behind a barrier.

The long-term social consequences of the mainstreaming of this kind of psychology have not really been explored. What we can say is that what is – on the surface – a fear of a virus has transmogrified in the mask debate into something much more un-nerving: a fear of each other. The idea, for example, that “anybody could have it” as it relates to the virus, was widely encouraged by public health officials explicitly telling the public to treat everybody they met as if they were a potential positive case.

What we can say, though, is that the fear many people have about ditching facemasks is evidence that there have been social consequences. The pandemic has transparently changed the way people think: Omicron is not proving any more lethal than the winter flus that we have lived with for generations. But never, across those generations, were we afraid to mingle openly, without masks, in winter time. Even when “a bad dose is going around”. We were comfortable accepting the risks, and accepting that catching the flu was a part of everyday life.

Perhaps it is that this acceptance has not yet been achieved with Covid: Now that it is endemic, there is no other choice. While it is endemic, all of us will catch Covid at some point in our lives, perhaps several times. There is no avoiding that. One may as well try to flee from death.

The battle, in as much as it remains, in the public square, is between those who have accepted that, and those who have not. Increasingly, those of us who have made our peace with it are gaining ground in that debate. But the facemask debate matters, because it is about much more than protection from illness. It’s about how we see each other, relate to each other, and train our children. A society which teaches its children that other people are inherently dirty will find, I suspect, that it is a place that has much less kindness in it, a few years down the road.

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