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Susan Snycerski Ph.D.

What We Refuse to See and Do in This Pandemic

Why the politicization of mask-wearing is so dangerous for everyone.

Alexander Droeger/Pixabay
Source: Alexander Droeger/Pixabay

Unless we begin universal mask-wearing, we can expect 300,000 dead by the end of the year. Scientists say that if 95 percent of Americans started wearing a mask today, we could save 66,000 lives by December 1, which is half of what we can expect without universal mask-wearing.

Since January, we have had over 190,000 deaths and 6.3 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with over 256,000 new cases in the last seven days. Wearing a mask and social distancing could have saved lives, and they can still save the lives of thousands in the coming months.

In cases of other national disasters, where death is a possible or probable outcome, the public is generally quick to respond and follow the guidance provided to them by government officials to stay safe.

When the National Hurricane Center warned that Hurricane Laura would produce conditions that were “unsurvivable,” the public heeded those warnings and took appropriate measures by boarding up structures and evacuating; they saved their lives. While California burns from multiple fires, those ordered by Cal Fire to evacuate loaded their belongings into their vehicles and left their homes and businesses; they saved their lives.

Why is it that people responded quickly to the warnings about the probable deaths and destruction from the hurricane and fires, thus saving their lives, but did not and continue not to heed the warnings about the life-or-death consequences of not wearing a mask?

One reason might be that we have a lifetime of experiencing and witnessing the devastating consequences of fires and hurricanes; indeed, we know to expect their occurrences every year. Their effects are also tangible: We can see the smoke lingering in the air and the red hue in the distance beyond the foothills. We can feel the gusts of wind and pellets of rain on our bodies. We see the destruction caused in real-time on television broadcasts and social media. We know what to expect from these natural disasters. We also trust in the scientists and professionals whose job it is to collect and interpret the data they use to inform those in danger of how to appropriately respond to their warnings.

COVID-19 is different. We can’t see it. We have never lived through such times and, therefore, did not know what to expect. The unknown can be frightening.

We’ve lived through flu seasons, H1N1, and Ebola, but nothing on the scale of COVID-19. By not taking the virus seriously from the beginning (and even denying its existence), the public was left with widely conflicting messages at the federal, state, and local levels about what actions we needed to take to stay safe and protect ourselves and others. Indeed, while some governors were calling for shelter-in-place, social distancing, and mask-wearing to stop the spread, other governors and even the president himself were downplaying the threat. We now know that the president knew how deadly COVID-19 was, as he revealed in a taped recording.

Currently, our country is incredibly politically divided. In psychology, we refer to this as in-group and out-group bias. That is, we tend to think more favorably towards our own group; we rate our group’s behaviors and opinions more positively than those in the out-group. Depending on which group you identify with, “mask-wearer” or “no mask-wearer,” the other group is the out-group and, consequently, wrong. In addition, our behaviors of mask-wearing or not mask-wearing may be reinforced by others in our group.

However, we may also be ridiculed by those in the out-group. Sadly, there are too many documented cases shared on social media, as well as news broadcasts, that show people being hostile and violent in response to mask-wearers and/or being asked to wear a mask. Mask-wearers also shame non-mask-wearers; both groups see the other as the out-group, which maintains the negative feelings and opinions of “the other side.”

In addition to the mixed messages coming from our elected officials, anti-science conspiracy theories flooded social media, and snake oil salesmen touted cures that had not been proven to be safe and/or effective.

Many of our leaders at the federal, state, and local levels failed to quell this misinformation, which resulted in mixed messages and confusion. Unfortunately, mask-wearing has become a partisan political issue for many.

Some people will argue that mandating the wearing of a mask is an infringement on their personal freedom and liberty. This “my body, my choice” argument states: “I have the right to make my own decisions on my personal health. You have no authority to make me wear a mask.” But not wearing a mask puts others at risk of serious illness and death, in addition to increasing one’s chances of becoming infected. That is why there is a long history of making medically valid restrictions for the good of the overall greater public health. We have laws that demonstrate this point: Adults have the right to get drunk, but they do not have the right to drive while drunk, as this puts others at risk.

Public health guidance should not be politicized. The independence of the FDA and CDC is of paramount importance for maintaining public trust in these agencies that are meant to protect and guide us through public health crises. Americans listened to the warning by the fire and weather agencies because they trusted them; clearly, there is a lack of public trust in the messaging surrounding COVID-19.

Science, quality data, and evidence-based treatments, not politics, should be what dictates the best path forward for slowing the spread of COVID-19. Politicizing wearing a mask only further divides our country, increases cases and deaths, and prevents us from returning to some semblance of normalcy.

Just like the recent fires and hurricane, COVID-19 is devastating our families, communities, economy, and morale. Now is the time to listen to the scientists who have spent their professional careers studying and preparing for pandemics: If you want 2021 to be safer, be a helper, wear a mask, and save lives. It’s that easy.