For human civilization, division appears to be a spontaneous process. Despite the shared trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and the common objective of victory over the contagion, political tension is festering in advanced countries like the United States and Canada.
In a time where political strife is bound to derail the national recovery from COVID-19, liberals and conservatives find themselves at odds when it comes to determining a feasible solution to our problem. Mask wearing, an intuitively necessary measure during a highly contagious pandemic, has become a point of political contention.
In the United States, some governments are imposing mask mandates for people entering places of business. In both Canada and the U.S, independent businesses are asking customers to wear masks. Certain political groups on both sides of the border are getting riled up, insisting that compulsory mask wearing is an attack on civil liberty and a symbol of cowardice. Movements self-dubbed "Hugs Over Masks" and "March to Unmask" have materialized north of the border.
I’ll address three popular arguments which attempt to repudiate mask mandates.
Argument #1: Masks Aren’t Going to Save Everyone from the Virus
President Trump himself stated this in a televised interview. First off, it’s a blatant straw man. Proponents of mask mandates aren’t asserting that masks are an omnipotent, 100% effective catch all solution which will immediately purge the world of COVID-19. Merely that masks have been empirically proven to be partially helpful, and that in times of emergency, an abundance of caution is necessary.
Numerous studies exist which conclude that masks are, to some degree, helpful and recommended by health professionals. Masks will help reduce community spread (primarily by stopping the projection of infectious aerosol by asymptomatic carriers). Even if you argue that there is no monolithic scientific consensus on this issue, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Conscientious and responsible citizens will do their part in preventing viral circulation. Conscientious and responsible governments will ensure that citizens do their part in preventing viral circulation. In businesses, crowded public spaces, and other locations where people are likely to interact in close proximity, masks play a role in preventing the spread of COVID.
Argument #2: Masks Make Breathing More Difficult
The anti-mask movement is based primarily on self-centered unwillingness to conform to public health recommendations, not on genuine health concerns. People are likely exaggerating the effects of mask wearing to provide fodder for this unwillingness.
If you feel that breathing becomes slightly more difficult, just move into an open area without too many people, lift your mask, and take a breath. Also, nobody is insisting that you wear masks for extended periods of time- only during times of close interaction with over people in an enclosed environment. I'm a chronic asthmatic, and mask wearing has not adversely affected my breathing.
Additionally, a recent Forbes article discussed independent experimentation by physicians who measured their oxygen saturation before wearing a mask and while they wore masks. Measurements were taken using a pulse oximeter- a compact device which is worn over the finger and measures oxygen concentration in blood (they’re readily available at Best Buy).
A reading between 95-100 percent is considered healthy. Every single physician mentioned in the article, after wearing masks for several hours, reported no significant change in their blood oxygen levels. All their readings stayed extremely high and within a healthy range.
According to the American Lung Association, "all masks are designed to be breathed through and there is no evidence that low oxygen levels occur". The American Lung Association does say, however, that "prolonged use of N-95 masks in patients with preexisting lung disease could cause some buildup of C02 levels in the body". The operative words here are prolonged use of N-95 masks.
Public health recommendations do not necessitate prolonged use, nor do they specify the types of face covering to be used. On both an anecdotal and empirical basis, the notion that mask wearing causes major respiratory difficulties holds no water. However, very acute cases of asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis and other respiratory conditions may be agitated by wearing face masks.
Argument #3: Masks are Bad for People with Pre-existing Respiratory Conditions
This is absolutely true, but it doesn't follow that mask mandates are unreasonable. The anti-vax crowd makes an analogous argument. They insist that because some people are adversely affected by vaccines, that vaccine mandates for the general population are unreasonable.
Arrangements can be made for people whose respiratory conditions are so severe that face-masks will exacerbate their symptoms. For example, a person living with a severe respiratory condition who can't safely wear a mask should have family members take of errands such as shopping, banking, etc. The solution will be entirely case dependent.
I have chronic asthma, and I only wear a mask when absolutely necessary. Thus far, I haven't experienced any substantial breathing difficulties as a result of mask wearing. The American Lung Association recommends that people with pre-existing lung problems should "discuss mask wearing concerns with their healthcare provider".
The fact that some members of the population may be adversely affected by mask wearing does not detract from the necessity of masks for the general population.
Argument #4: Mask Mandates are a Violation of Our Rights
Are they? Wearing a mask is incredibly easy. It doesn’t require you to put yourself through extreme discomfort or go out of your way. By the same logic, traffic regulation is an exercise in excessive government control.
Being asked to wear a mask whenever you enter a restaurant or doctor’s office is not totalitarian overreach. Nobody is invoking martial law or turning the country into a surveillance state. You’re simply being asked to take actions which are scientifically proven to be effective (once again, masks aren’t going to single-handedly deliver us from the pandemic, but they’re better than nothing).
Until cases decrease heftily, everyone needs to do their part. People cannot refuse to wear masks in places of business on account of personal inconvenience. This is toxic libertarianism- the idea that one can act however they want to without considering how their actions may adversely affect the well being of others.
What would the government's motivation be in arbitrarily forcing people to don face coverings in the midst of a pandemic? What would they stand to gain by virtue of mask mandates? Nothing. I completely understand why some people are averse to wearing masks. They're extremely annoying, and I'd honestly love it if I never had to wear a face mask in public again.
The fact that mask wearing has become subject to political controversy has baffled me. I’m a fierce proponent of unmarred freedom of expression, but not unmarred freedom of action. I believe in individual freedom insofar as the well being of others remains unaffected.
Everyone needs to do their part. I do not think it is reasonable for masks to be compulsory whenever an individual leaves their house. However, when people began dismissing social distancing and rejecting the use of masks, the government was forced to step in.
Such gratuitous and widespread ignorance has decreased my faith in humanity and hope for the future. All we can do now is hope that the anti-mask sentiment does not worsen our prognosis.
Things are moving in the right direction for Canada, as many of our major cities are now in phase three of recovery process. Students will be returning to school this fall, and I'm concerned that many will not adhere to social distancing and mask wearing during lunchtime/after school hours.