Why has coronavirus become such a political topic? What I mean by this - why are things such as mask wearing so political? Shouldn't we know whether or not wearing masks work? Why does the answer to that depend on if you are Republican or Democrat?
David Easton (a major figure in modern political science) defined governance as the 'authoritative allocation of values', meaning that a government decides what values the community it serves will hold as important, productive, and meaningful. Governance in this sense is the answer to the question: "How do we as a nation allocate our collective time and resources?" Should we send a rocket to the moon? Should we prioritize the fight against cancer? Should we guarantee food security or medical care for all? Should we focus on innovation and economic success? A government might even choose to invest heavily in the military or police, which is consistent with the more familiar aphorism (derived from sociology) that 'a government holds a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.' But again, 'force' in this context is not arbitrary; force is applied by a government to ensure that certain values are upheld. We might disagree with the values being imposed, and thus disagree that such use of force is legitimate, but that merely reinforces the idea that the allocation of values is a central feature of government.
With that in mind, a topic is political when it involves making decisions about how we will allocate the collective resources and efforts of the community. Tasks which require collective, community-wide involvement — be they as prosaic as building a highway between cities, or as esoteric as strengthening the foundations of the economy — necessarily invoke political question where different people might disagree about what course of action is best. Such political questions inevitably boil to discussions of what we value as a community.
The use of prophylactic masks to control a pandemic was destined to be political issue. For masks to work as a preventative measure, everyone in the community has to agree to use them; there is a value to wearing masks that must be allocated authoritatively so that it applies universally and consistently. This exercise of authority may be as simple as public pleas from authority figures, or public education by medical professionals; or as extreme as lockdowns, quarantines, or legal penalties for non-compliance. Or authority could bend in the other direction, asserting that other values supersede the values of life and health (a value sometimes invoked to encourage military service, but which is rarely effective in other contexts). This first is the path that most nations of the world have followed, and citizens of other nations have generally complied, if grumblingly, because they have been convinced that not wearing masks will do harm to their friends, neighbors, and countries. The politics is still there; this is still an issue of the authoritative allocation of values. But there is such broad agreement with the value in question that the issue is not particularly contentious. Wearing masks is seen as a small price to pay for a potentially large reward to others in the nation, so most people buckle-down and do it.
The US context is somewhat different. Over the past three or four decades the US has seen the rise of a strong nationalist1 movement which resists most forms of authority except its own. This movement explicitly rejects most public intellectual/academic sources of reasoning — the sources that would normally be used to construct values in this situation — and aggressively counter and contradict any efforts to build public agreement on such values. There is a lot of history behind this — disputes over evolution, abortion, climate change and green technology; social critiques of slavery and race relations, the decimation of native Americans, or the wealth divide; rising cultural conflicts like feminism, globalization, LGBTQ issues... — which has given rise to a lot of frustrated anger within conservatives generally, and has motivated this nationalist movement in particular. Issues like 'mask wearing' — which are expressly political, but would normally be considered neutral and innocuous — become contentious here because they are interpreted as just one more way in which the government tries to impose unwanted values. It is a visceral, gut-level reaction against what they perceived as a persistent, oppressive pontification from 'intellectuals' on the left; The movement and its supporter reject wearing masks mainly because it's something they can control among a host of things they cannot (e.g., "I can't make gay marriages stop, but you can't make me wear this d*mned mask").
We could get into the roots of this nationalist movement — why it arose, who benefits from it, what the various issues are) — but that's not the meaningful point. The point is that there are a large number of conservatives in the US who are frustrated with progressives having political control over the allocation of national values — mainly in social policy — and this has culminated in an active movement which has turned to simple disruption to make its displeasure heard. It rejects scientific, academic, and intellectual authority not because it thinks such are wrong, but because it has come to hold that much of scientific and intellectual authority is merely a political tool used by the Left to push its agendas. And since this movement has risen to take control of many (if not most) of prominent leadership positions in the Conservative movement more broadly — not to mention into the White House and Cabinet — it has managed to become the dominant voice in conservatism. Masks have become a public symbol of political overreach in their minds: one that they wish to use for anti-Democrat messaging.
1The term 'nationalist' follows George Orwell's "Notes on Nationalism". He himself acknowledges that the word-choice isn't the best, but uses it because there isn't a better. The nutshell (tldr) is that nationalists are people who invest themselves in an idea so completely that the political success of that idea becomes their foremost concern. Often this idea is the idea of an actual nation (e.g., those overly preoccupied with asserting the greatness of their country), but it can just as easily be applied to a religion, political ideology, ethnic group, or any other abstract group that could be imagined to have its own sovereign status.
Why are masks political?
Because the handling of the pandemic has become a political issue. The President took a clear position. In a bipartisan, hyperpartisan climate, loyalists of the President must be seen to publicly back him, whatever the facts. Opponents to the President must be seen to publicly attack him, whatever the facts. The fact that one side seems to have public health on their side, at least according to the current state of the science, while the other might have at least short-term economic benefits on their side, hardly matters.
(The comments asked about the economic benefits. If there is a mask requirement, people will spend (and earn) less money in shops and bars because they're scared. Just how scared they should have been was still unclear in the spring of 2020.)
Why have masks become political?
To do President Trump justice, at the beginning the mask issue was complicated by severe PPE shortages.
Can you imagine any political leader going forward: "We believe it is a good idea if you wear masks, but it is vital that you restrict yourself to homemade cloth masks until we have sorted PPE supply for the health system. Even then it is FPP2 masks are for the hospitals, inferior substitutes for you." Yeah, sure.
Various governments worldwide made the transition and took a hit to their credibility. This was not just bad for them personally, the inconsistency hurt their public health messaging. "So they lied about masks. Why should I believe them about distancing or quarantine if that is inconvenient for me?"
But it is not in President Trump's character to admit any error, in whatever context.
Mask vs Mask
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) like N95 masks are always effective against airborne transmitted diseases (when properly used). They were designed for that reason. Any other kind of mask widely available to consumers is less effective than N95. That doesn't make it useless against transmission, but it does mean that when people talk about "masks", you really need to know exactly which kind (PPE or regular) you're talking about.
There's two problems that happened initially which helped to sow confusion
- There was a run on PPE (particularly N95 masks), making it hard for healthcare providers to obtain
- People turned to other types of masks (i.e. cloth, surgical, etc) that are clearly not as effective at blocking Covid as PPE, but are better than nothing
Where this went sideways was some people were simply told masks weren't effective (without specifying which masks they meant), likely in a misguided attempt to stem the run on PPE (below is outdated advice from March 2020)
WHO officials do not recommend mask wearing for healthy members of the general population.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
(Dr. Adams later recanted.)
Since then, everyone has had to thread the needle of explaining that any kind of face covering will help, but that it's not guaranteed to prevent infection. Here's an article from the CDC on masks from July.
Cloth masks have been used in healthcare and community settings to protect the wearer from respiratory infections. The use of cloth masks during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is under debate. The filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly. Multilayer cloth masks, designed to fit around the face and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave, may provide reasonable protection. Until a cloth mask design is proven to be equally effective as a medical or N95 mask, wearing cloth masks should not be mandated for healthcare workers. In community settings, however, cloth masks may be used to prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected persons, and the public should be educated about their correct use.
This has lead to all sorts of confusion. Furthering this chaos would be the inconsistent positions of world leaders. Trump is the easiest target here, since he publicly rejected mask use for a long time
So with the masks, it’s going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it, and that’s okay. It may be good. Probably will. They’re making a recommendation. It’s only a recommendation. It’s voluntary.
but Trump is hardly alone, with other leaders like Xi Jinping, Boris Johnson and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador all eschewing masks in public events (all have since reversed course in some fashion).
Inconsistent protest regulations didn't help
While not directly related to masks, it's hard to ignore the fact that political protests over the lockdowns were condemned and restricted while protests over racial injustice were explicitly allowed to go on
“Instinctively, many of us in public health feel a strong desire to act against accumulated generations of racial injustice,” Dr. Lurie said. “But we have to be honest: A few weeks before, we were criticizing protesters for arguing to open up the economy and saying that was dangerous behavior.
“I am still grappling with that.”
To which Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, added: “Do I worry that mass protests will fuel more cases? Yes, I do. But a dam broke, and there’s no stopping that.”
That difference was sometimes quite stark
Take Contra Costa County, California. On June 2, the Bay Area county's Health Services department issued an updated shelter-in-place order that limited outdoor social gatherings to 12 people from the same "social bubble" but rescinded a mass gathering ban to allow for political protests of up to 100 people. This version of the order maintained a prohibition on outdoor religious gatherings.
I should note that there's no evidence these protests caused any spikes in infections but it still damages the credibility of local governments to say you can't have large gatherings, but you can have large protests. Now imagine these same people are saying that they must wear a mask and it's not as surprising when civil disobedience follows.
Because there is a significant portion of people in the USA that have a very strong tendency to discard any fact that inconveniences them. We've been sold convenience relentlessly for decades and have come to expect it as our birthright.
We conveniently forget that the reason masks were initially discouraged was to prevent a run on masks, like the run we saw on toilet paper and other necessities when the news first broke during Bizarro Week.
We conveniently forget that masks DID help during the influenza pandemic nearly 100 years ago.
We conveniently ignore all sorts of other things, such as traffic laws and so forth. This is not limited by the rights or convenience of other around us at this point. Listen to any marketing pitch to Americans, and it will invariably tell the listener that they "deserve" whatever convenience is being pitched. After a few decades of this, people start to believe it.
Science gives us plenty of inconvenient facts, like climate change, economic realities of automation and globalization. We, as a group, conveniently ignore history pretty much outright. Some readers here would like to conveniently abscond their responsibility to each other and instead throw mud. That's easier, more convenient if you will, than looking in the mirror for answers. Will it be easier to flag this post as rude/abusive than the unpleasant inconvenience of some soul-searching?
It doesn't take a medical degree to realize that a sneeze inside a mask projects far fewer particles and aerosol than an open face. Nobody has claimed that masks are 100% prophylactic. Scientists repeatedly use the term "reduce", instead of "prevent". Careful attention to actual words is apparently also inconvenient for Americans especially.
Our chief plague doctors DID say, from the very beginning, that the masks were to be held for use by front-line workers UNTIL the supply could ramp up. They NEVER said they don't work; they simply didn't want the idiots to hoard them. If they knew they didn't work, then why save them for doctors? (Would you want a surgeon doing thoracic surgery on you without a mask?)
All of that was out in the open and repeated for the better part of two weeks. That caveat was absolutely NOT buried in internal memos. Conveniently, people have forgotten that, twisted it around, or [conveniently] let others twist it for them, so that they can support their own beliefs to permit their maximum convenience of not being "forced" to wear a stinky old mask. Clearly, their own convenience outweighs the very lives of their fellows. They would rather risk the lives of the people (and their families and friends) around them at the grocery store than wear a mask for fifteen minutes. Psychopathic compulsive convenience rules supreme.
Now, Trump is twisting those remarks and using this as a convenient cudgel against his opponent during an election, which is a purely political ploy.
Because any sufficiently prominent politician can make anything they want into a political issue whenever they darn well please. That's sort of the definition of 'political issue' - it simply means a topic that connects to politics. A big enough politician can connect anything to politics by choosing to create that connection personally.
The debt ceiling wasn't a political issue until one side chose to make it so in 2011. It stopped because in 2013, the other side said "Go ahead, blow up the whole world economy if you dare" and the first side decided to let it drop.
Whether something is a political issue has less to do with its actual merits as a problem, and more to do with how hard people decide to fight over it. Abortion is a political issue, and cancer by and large is not. This is despite the number of abortions in 2016 being approximately the same as the number of cancer deaths.
Yet one a political issue and the other not. Why? Ultimately politicians have chosen to focus on one and not the other.
Generally speaking Democrats and Republicans have differing priorities - in this case protecting public health vs protecting civil liberties, where each side considers the opposite issue so significantly more important than the other that they're not willing to compromise.
I suspect masks became political is because of the push to mandate wearing them. If it had just been a recommendation, I'm sure a lot of people would have just not worn masks - however because they're being told to do something they don't want to do they're now actively resisting it.
The effectiveness of masks has become a secondary issue in the debate over whether the government should have the authority to mandate the wearing of masks.
There are two issues here that are often lumped together, especially by observers from outside the US. Separating them makes the problem a bit clearer.
The first issue is whether wearing a mask is something you should do. We're still getting mixed data about when and where masks are or aren't effective or necessary, so people naturally have different opinions. Some people might try to make it political (like everything else), but for the most part people are OK wearing a mask to be on the safe side for now.
The second issue is whether the government can mandate that you wear a mask. This is the part where most of the political opposition comes in. In a system where the government has a limited, specifically-enumerated set of powers, the idea of a mask mandate stands out as an overreach. Most mask mandates are executive orders. One person (president, governor, mayor, etc) decided that masks should be mandatory and used special emergency authority to give that decision the force of law. These orders were not laws passed by the legislature, and in some cases even conflicted with existing legislation or state constitutions. Wearing a mask isn't the political part. The political part is whether one person can choose to ignore the entire system and make what looks disturbingly like a royal decree. The American system was structured to prevent anyone from expanding their own power or authority without an explicit grant from the people, and the emergency powers assumed by many executive branches seemed to fly in the face of those principles. What's to prevent someone from declaring (or creating) an arbitrary "emergency" to seize arbitrary power? That's the core of the political opposition.
When people feel that a law is enacted inappropriately like this, they're naturally more inclined to reject or oppose it, even if it's something they might normally do of their own volition. Compliance feels like you're giving implicit approval for a rule that you fundamentally oppose. That makes it easier for opposition to the process to be mistaken with opposition to the underlying concept.
Honestly - because we live in an era where EVERYTHING is political.
In the past, this wasn't really true. Of course political tribalism has always been there, but people used to argue (sometimes passionately) about a relatively small range of socio-political issues, rather than every social and economic issue being highly contentious and viewed almost exclusively through a political prism and identity politics.
I attribute it to the rise of the internet and the commensurate echo-chamber effect. This isn't a new idea - it's pretty much taken as given these days.
There are some exceptions - like Germany and New Zealand - where mushy, centrist compromise politics continues to be the order of the day, but in most places, we are moving towards hyperpartisanship and the fetishisation of political tribalism.
It's hard to think of any contemporary social or political issue that doesn't attract wild levels of engagement and controversy among the population, and I don't think this was really true fifty or sixty years ago.
One aspect that hasn't been mentioned is that the effectiveness of mask use isn't universal. In a densely populated urban environment, physically distancing yourself from other people is practically impossible. In a regional or rural environment, you might be able to walk, cycle or hang around in a park without coming within several meters / yards of anyone else (or perhaps just with your family with whom you spend a bunch of mask-free time in close confines anyway). Suburban environments fall somewhere in between.
So there's an element of rules being made for inner city populations being forced onto people regardless of circumstance. Given the political divide between urban and rural populations, the voices of those rural populations are raised and amplified by their political community.
I has to be political because it can't be scientific. If you look at science around the disposable masks used by regular people then science isn't very strong, and at this point (autumn 2020) many articles are still being peer reviewed.
From a European point of you you can see one country (Sweden) having one strategy that is open, and a country right next to it (Denmark) having a strategy with masks etc. In those countries doctors try to follow the politicians.
My guess is that it will be less political and more scientific once some of the studies conducted in the spring gets published.
I know the question mostly is about USA, and here I just think people like to call each other idiots and that is why it escalates there, but that is a guess.