Late last night, the news websites finally confirmed it: here in England, wearing face masks or face coverings in all shops is going to be compulsory from 24th July, and ignoring this mandate will be enforceable by fairly hefty fines. (No, I’ve no idea why there’s a ten day delay before the legislation kicks in: not when next-day delivery exists and we can all get a stash of masks by midnight tomorrow if we need to. It appears to be just another delightful example of the government applying its own unique logic).
Anyway, before I’d even woken up this morning, some of the Facebook statuses on my timeline were jumping — like so many iron filings — to the magnetic poles of one extreme viewpoint or the other. “Finally!” said some of them. “Some clarity. I’ve been wearing masks from the outset, and quite clearly I was right to do so!”. “What a grotesque invasion of my liberty,” said others. “That’s me done with shops FOREVER. Bring on internet shopping and the ultimate death of the high street.” “They make me feel panicky.” “They make me feel safe.” “New and sensible normal.” “Thin end of a mind control wedge.” Ping ping ping, went my eyes from one side of the argument to the other while I ate toast with slightly too much butter on it. I was agog. Who knew it was such a big deal?
If I’d thought about it at all (which I have, obviously, a bit; for example when I ordered a stash of face masks right at the start of the pandemic before we were initially told they did more harm than good, and then I felt a bit foolish for ordering them until I found they were actually really useful for seeing clients when the office re opened) I would have certainly described my reaction to the idea of compulsory masks or face coverings as being close to the “about time” end of the spectrum.
It makes sense to me that the spread of a respiratory virus would be reduced by something that restricts the outflow of breath into the atmosphere. This seems to me to be basic logic, not science. I was actually surprised when face coverings were not made into a condition of shops being allowed to re-open last month, especially in smaller shops. If there’s a chance it helps then I’m happy enough to wear a bit of fabric on elastic over my face. It’s really not a big deal.
Because how hard is it, really, to comply with the new rules? No one is insisting that we don the sort of heavy duty masks worn by welders, or the thick fabric creations worn by surgeons in operating theatres, or even the visor and mask combinations favoured by industrial cleaners. The guidance states that a scarf over the face is fine, or the sort of snood (a “buff”) that I’d regularly wear to go running on a cold day.
When I visited London recently, where masks have been compulsory for some time on public transport, most people that I saw were sporting the thinnest slips of material, hanging from their ears on flimsy straps, ready to push over their noses and mouths as they hopped on to the train or bus. These might not be the most efficacious face covering, science-wise, but they are still valid, according to the rules. It is clearly possible to get away with very little inconvenience and still tick the mask-wearing box.
There can therefore be no valid objection, surely, simply to the fact of a mask’s existence. So why do some people have such a deep-seated polarising objection to them being made compulsory in some places? (They’re still not compulsory in the street, or in bars or restaurants, in England as they are in some countries such as South Africa).
Not the masks themselves, then. They’re not the problem. What is the problem, it seems — as demonstrated by the widely publicised anti-mask sentiment in the States — is the idea of being forced to wear one. Of the face covering being compulsory, and thus an erosion of our hard-won freedom to…what? Not breathe in droplets of other people’s potentially disease-ridden out-breaths? Inhale a bit less halitosis? It feels like a strange thing to become so furiously defensive about. It might be argued that even if we think the science is bunkum and that the new rules are nothing but Boris Johnson or Donald Trump giving in to political peer pressure, it’s a small price to pay to put a lot of minds at ease; potentially, even, to save a life or two.
But the other extreme argument is also troubling on a granular level. The idea, basically, that we should have all been wearing masks religiously from the very start, and that those of us who haven’t have already spent far too long being carelessly irresponsible (so the new legislation should in fact be taken as a bit of a slap on the wrist). This superior viewpoint isn’t helpful either. Smug “I told you so” stances have no place in this pandemic, because there are so many unknowns and because we’ve been given so very many mixed messages.
The guidance here in England, and apparently in lots of other places, has been sketchy and confusing. Even now, the ten-day delay before the new rules kick in suggests in a general way that face covering isn’t actually urgent. It’s difficult to blame the public at large for not hopping on a possibly lifesaving bandwagon when the WHO didn’t make up its mind until June. And in countries where wearing face coverings has been required in all outdoor situations for many weeks already, there’s no overwhelming proof that they’re a universal panacea against the virus’ spread. Singapore has a 90% rate of public mask-wearing, because it’s entirely compulsory, and yet they’ve still seen their cases rise.
Perhaps what my Facebook feed this morning demonstrated was the age-old need for tribes to form, anywhere and everywhere, in any arena where opinions might differ. This pandemic is no different. And the fact is, as demonstrated throughout every stage of lockdown and its subsequent easing, everyone has their own interpretation of the rules and the freedoms and the way that they, personally, will behave. Some of us went to the supermarket daily; others still haven’t been and are afraid to do so. Judgemental viewpoints abound, and “personal choice!” has never been so widely trumpeted, because its interpretation has rarely been constrained by such narrow parameters.
And maybe that’s the nub of it. Therein, perhaps, the rub.
By making face coverings compulsory while shopping, which is a perfectly valid and apparently rational decision, it feels perhaps that the government has removed another element of personal choice; or put another way, it’s removed another chance for the proponents of extreme viewpoints to hold themselves out as staunch advocates of their own particular beliefs. When we’re all hidden behind the same strips of fabric, only by the magic of Facebook can we let the world know how important our own viewpoint is.
Perhaps that’s what’s so scary. Scarier, even, than a life-threatening disease.