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mask on the ground

On April 23, Ontario’s health officer, Dr. Kieran Moore, reconfirmed the province’s mask mandate, four days before the mandate was scheduled to be lifted altogether. This on-again-off-again approach to Covid restrictions that governments around the world have followed since the beginning of the pandemic contributes to the sneaking feeling we all have that face masks are not essential weapons in the war against Covid. This feeling was intensified when vaccines became available, but now has seeped into the very fabric of our collective and individual responses to the pandemic. It’s too much like the parable of the boy who cried “Wolf!” once too often: put your masks on — oh, no, you can take them off — no, wait, put them on again. A man quoted recently in the Guardian said he’d worn a mask when the mandates were in place (he was a teacher), but only because his job required it. “It was a kind of theatre,” he said.

And, of course, nobody takes theatre seriously.

But we should, in this case, because no sooner are mask mandates lifted than the number of new cases shoots up again. Politicians lift the mandates, health officials (like Dr. Kieran Moore in Ontario) say Yes, we know you don’t have to wear face masks in public, but we think you should anyway. But almost nobody does. A poll taken in a shopping mall in Britain after July 29 (Boris Johnson’s ludicrous “Freedom Day”) found that only 1 shopper in 25 wore a face mask.

Buried within that pattern (and indirectly responsible for it) lurks the fact that a certain proportion of people steadfastly refuse to wear face masks at any time, mandated or not. Even people who approve of the restrictions slack off when it comes to wearing face masks. I’m one of them. I take my mask off as soon as I sit down in a restaurant; I pull it below my nose when I don’t see anyone ahead of me on a sidewalk. I’m not like the man I once saw who took his mask off to sneeze, or another man who came up to me wearing a mask and took it off when he started talking to me. But there are enough nonconformists among us to keep the concept of herd immunity a distant and unreachable Walden.

At a rough guess, I would say that approximately 15 percent of the population either don’t wear masks at all, or else wear them improperly, either below their noses, under their chins, or around their wrists.

Actually, it’s not a rough guess, it’s a statistical analysis. Let’s look at some numbers:

  1. In 2019, of the 22,215 people killed in car accidents in the U.S., almost half of them – 10,400 – were not wearing seatbelts. In Canada, 30 percent of traffic fatalities are of drivers or passengers not wearing seatbelts. Given those statistics, who would not want to wear a seatbelt? A lot of people, apparently. In surveys, more than 10 percent of North Americans admit that they never wear seatbelts. Another 13 percent say they don’t buckle up if they’re just travelling a short distance, even though studies have found that 52 percent of all car accidents occur within five miles of home.
  2. Between 12.5 and 13.7 percent of North Americans smoke. Last year, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, 480,000 Americans died from diseases related to smoking or to exposure to second-hand smoke. Worldwide the figure is 7 million.
  3. Fifteen percent of Canadians are unvaccinated against Covid. From December to March of this year, 8,426 unvaccinated people died in Canada of Covid, compared to 2,665 deaths among people who were vaccinated.

When Premier Ford lifted the mask mandate for schools, restaurants and theatres on March 21, it wasn’t as though the number of new Covid cases was going down. That day, 5,059 new cases of Covid were recorded, a startlingly high figure considering only 35,000 people were tested, which meant about 1 person in 7 tested positive. By April 2, the number of daily cases had climbed to 8,072 out of 42,000 tested (about 1 in 5). The percentage of new cases continued to climb steadily, and yet people continued to discard their face masks. This time, the government didn’t try to blame the economy; Ford said that people were just tired of wearing face masks: “Like, we got to move on.”

Move on to where?

Last month, a U.S. District Judge in Florida vacated the face mask requirement on public transit, nationwide, by ruling favourably on a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Centres for Disease Control by a lunatic group calling itself the Health Freedom Defense Fund, which claims that “bodily autonomy” is a human right. As a result of Judge Kathryn Mizelle’s ruling, Bloomberg reported the next day, no one aboard an airplane, on a train or in a bus in the U.S. was required to wear a face mask. When the decision was announced on some flights, passengers cheered and threw their face masks in the air to celebrate. Judge Mizelle, an unqualified Trump appointee, had taken exception to the CDC mandate which claimed that masks are a form of sanitation. “Wearing a mask cleans nothing,” she declared. During the two weeks leading up to April 18, presumably while Judge Mizelle was wrestling with her decision, 501,092 people came down with Covid-19 in the U.S., and 6,200 of them died. Judge Mizelle’s partisan quibble over the wording of the CDC mandate was morally reprehensible. Everyone knew it, and yet 15 percent of us applauded it.

Is our reluctance to mask up simply childish? Are those who refuse to wear masks just a bunch of spoiled brats saying they don’t like peas? Or does their rebelliousness go deeper than that?

In Pandexicon, my forthcoming book about the pandemic, I argue that our subliminal beliefs and desires are often revealed, and sometimes even created, by the language we use to express them. We don’t like face masks, so we devise unpleasant ways to refer to them, and then our societal attitudes towards face masks are determined by the unpleasant names we’ve given them. I know that’s a circular argument, but we like circular arguments. Whole generations have been swept up and spat out by them. One kid in a school doesn’t like sausages, so he calls them “greasy bloaters,” and suddenly no one in the school will eat a sausage, because who wants to eat something called a greasy bloater? Instead of sausages, apply that thinking to, say, an ethnic group, and before long you’ve got the Holocaust.

Sixty years ago in Canada there was strong resistance to wearing face masks when playing hockey, especially among goalies. Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Jacques Plante was the first player to wear one. On October 31, 1959, Plante’s nose had been nearly sheared off in the first period by a slapshot from Andy Bathgate; in the second period, he came back onto the ice wearing a face mask. After the game, Chicago goalie Glenn Hall called Plante “a wimp.”

Some of that attitude carried over when face masks were recommended for defense against Covid – largely, I think, because they were called face masks. It’s interesting that resistance has come mainly from men, one of whom recently told a researcher that wearing a face mask during an infectious disease pandemic is “a sign of weakness.”

In Germany, where thousands of demonstrators marched to protest government mandates to wear face masks, maintain social distancing, and refrain from gathering in large groups, government-imposed pandemic restrictions were compared to Nazi operations to exterminate Jews. A face mask there is called a Gesichtskondom, a “face condom.” In Argentina, where lockdowns lasted for more than six months, a face mask is uno barbijo, a chin strap — presumably because it’s best worn under the chin. Similarly, in Mexico, face masks are cubrabocas, mouth covers, not mouth and nose covers.

A mask in Italian is maschera, but since that word has been seconded to the fashion industry to mean makeup that covers the eyelashes, a face mask a mascherina. Unfortunately, mascherina also means “little girl.” Macho men objected to wearing anything called a mascherina. Even more expostulation erupted in January of this year, when police in seven Italian provinces were issued pink face masks to wear on duty. The police union objected that wearing a pink mascherina “could damage the image of the institution.”

Perhaps Spain’s is the most telling sobriquet. In that country, a “mask” is una máscara, but that word also means a stain, or smut. A face mask is una mascarilla. There was no need to invent a more unpleasant word for the government mandated face covering: una mascarilla is also the Spanish word for “death mask.”

To be fair, it may not be circular rhetoric that makes people not want to wear face masks. It may go deeper than that. Sigmund Freud’s theory of a collective death drive may be at play. Freud proposed that the human instinct to procreate is offset by an equally strong tendency to self-destruct — that our libido is offset by an opposing force he called mortido. As the one wanes, the other surges. If we can judge by the increasing divorce rate and declining birth rate in many Western societies, it seems our libidos have been in retreat since the beginning of the pandemic. Has an aggressive mortido stepped in to compensate? Like smoking and not wearing a seatbelt, refusing to protect ourselves and our loved ones from an infectious disease could be seen as a subliminal wish to die and take a few close friends with us.

It may go even deeper. A child refusing to eat peas may be expressing a death wish, but whose death? Joseph Campbell identifies mortido as a patricidal urge, and it’s true that the most vulnerable members of the community, those most likely to be killed by the persistent spread of the coronavirus, are the elderly. Is our often belligerent refusal to follow pandemic protocols an expression of our secret desire to kill our parents?

Let’s assume that the 15 percent of those who aren’t vaccinated include the 13.7 percent who smoke, and among that group are the 10 percent who don’t wear seat belts. In other words, that they’re mostly all the same people, smoking and driving and carrying on as though there were no cancer, car accidents, or Covid. Their life expectancy would therefore be very short, shorter even than that of the elderly.

It would be as though they weren’t culling their parents from the herd, they’re culling themselves.


  1. Nancy Flight

    Great piece, and fascinating stats about the percentages of people who smoke, don’t wear seatbelts, and aren’t vaccinated and the likelihood that they are mostly the same people.

  2. Wayne

    Thanks, Sandra: the best part about the pink masks was that the police union’s official reason for rejecting them was that they didn’t match the uniforms. Italian police are so style conscious.

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