Lentis/Antimaskers in the U.S. during the 2020 Pandemic
During the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, world health experts have urged citizens around the globe to wear face masks to prevent and slow the spread of the disease. While there has been little governmental enforcement of rules requiring a mask, many businesses and organizations have required their patrons to wear one. These requirements have inadvertently led to the resistance of some to follow the rules. People who refuse to wear such face coverings have been labeled as "antimaskers". The Anti-Mask League of San Francisco was a similar movement protesting the public mandate of wearing face coverings during the 1918 Influenza Pandemic. Societal reactance to enforced rules/guidelines is not novel to the COVID-19 pandemic and many parallels can be drawn from resistance groups of the past and present.
While there does not exist an overarching organization for the antimask movement, individuals have formed groups to voice their grievances. Online forums and social media (such as Facebook Groups) have allowed like-minded people to share information, organize protests, and recruit others to strengthen the movement. Users state a variety of reasons to not wear a mask, but many have formed a general consensus that they are useless and hinder the ability to breathe properly. Many protestors also voice their concerns over personal liberties and freedoms: "It’s a violation of my freedom, I think, and then also I just don’t think they work" (Stewart, 2020). Despite growing evidence of the effectiveness of masks and advice of experts, the number of antimask Facebook groups continues to expand.
The views and opinions of individuals within the movement can be classified in two main tenants: 1. A distrust in the scientific community and governmental entities, and 2. The protection of personal liberties over the "good of the many." Similar to the flat Earth and anti-vaxxer groups, antimaskers see themselves as the resistance to an oppressive establishment. In addition, many protestors cite the US Constitution as the basis for their beliefs, "No states are allowed to make laws that take our freedoms and liberties away" (Stewart, 2020). Inadequate and inconsistent enforcement of mandates by law enforcement also plays a role. When combined together with a group mentality, individuals fight for what they believe with confidence and a solid foundation, accelerating new membership.
Gender has been shown to have a strong influence on mask-wearing preference. In a study of over 2,500 people across the United States, Capraro and Barcelo found that in both mandatory and non-mandatory situations, men scored lower when they were asked to rate their intentions to wear a face mask. Similarly, men also experienced more negative emotions when wearing a face mask in comparison to women. This implies that men and women have different social values that influence their opinions on mask wearing, which may be attributed to upbringing based on gender, social psychology, and various other factors.
President Trump and Political AffiliationEdit
Throughout the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump has had a large influence in how the pandemic has been handled. On occasion, he has been shown to be dismissive of the pandemic, has not actively acknowledged that masks help contain the spread of the virus, and was not seen wearing a mask in public until July 11, 2020, nearly 4 months after COVID-19 was classified as a pandemic by the WHO. Trump refusing to wear a mask has turned mask-wearing into a heavily politicized issue. An overwhelming majority of antimaskers politically identify as Republican and look to President Trump as an example. Many antimaskers see mask-wearing is a symbol of both political beliefs and individual values, particularly the right to bodily autonomy.
Distrust of ExpertsEdit
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading experts in the United States have given contradictory information regarding the effectiveness of masks. On February 29, 2020, the US Surgeon General tweeted "Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS." More recently, Dr. Scott W. Atlas, a neuroradiologist and medical advisor to Trump, tweeted "Masks work? NO." This tweet was later flagged by Twitter for misinformation. Dr. Fauci, one of the most trusted medical experts in America and a lead member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, stated in a video on March 8, 2020, “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” He has since gone back on this statement multiple times, and reassured Americans that masks are effective at containing the virus.
The CDC did not update guidelines to include wearing masks until April 3, 2020. The WHO did not update their guidelines until June 5, 2020, despite COVID-19 being declared a pandemic back in March 2020.
Between public health professionals telling them that masks do not work, delayed evidence that they do, and general misinformation, antimaskers have grown to become distrustful of expert advice. However, antimaskers distrust of experts appears to be an extension of the distrust developed in the 1800’s when vaccines were first administered. This public confusion and concern over vaccines has persisted, and is known to us today as the Anti-vaxxer movement. The antimaskers and the Anti-vaxxer movement both distrust experts and value bodily autonomy. As the COVID-19 vaccine is developed, there is sure to be more controversy regarding the vaccine, and this distrust will only become more apparent.
Office of War Information and Rosie the RiveterEdit
The United States Office of War Information existed during World War II to provide information to civilians on the home front about the war. WWII was a total war which meant it required the efforts of a majority of the citizens in the country. Because men traditionally worked factory jobs there was a labor shortage for a lot of blue collar work as many of the able bodied men were at war. The OWI decided to draw up propaganda posters to normalize and promote women working these roles.
This is an example of the United States using propaganda and messaging to challenge societal norms to benefit the whole country. Women took an important role in the workforce during WWII and increased their proportion in the workforce significantly.Rosie the Riveter is an allegorical cultural icon that originated during World War II, and is still used and referenced as a symbol of feminism and female self-determination. One can see there was missed opportunity to leverage Americans' patriotism to challenge the notion of mask wearing as a restriction of personal liberty. The United States Government could have taken a similar approach, and attempted to create an allegorical cultural icon for promoting public health, who wears a mask to protect their fellow Americans. There would be great benefit to a long lasting American icon who promotes collective health.
Another example of government taking initiative to shift cultural norms for the betterment of society is Cool Biz. It is an ongoing Japanese government initiative to promote cooler business dress during summer months to save energy normally used for air conditioning. The campaign consists of fashion shows, informational posters, and early adoption by government officials. Prior to the the Cool Biz campaigns beginning in 2005, it was customary for Japanese salarymen to wear a full suit and tie regardless of the weather. Cool biz was a major cultural change, and saw great success. Japan saw a 460 thousand-ton reduction in CO2 emissions in 2005 and 1.14 million-ton reduction in 2006. Adoption of Cool Biz by political leaders, including former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, helped popularize the movement.
One can easily see strategies in Cool Biz that can be directly applied to fighting anti-mask sentiment in the United States since both involve cultural shifts in fashion for social good. It's reasonable to assume fashion shows and adoption by government officials could have encouraged abandonment of anti mask sentiment.
Trump's Public Appearances Wearing a MaskEdit
The percentage of Americans who are not wearing masks has gone down significantly since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic. A Pew Research Center study surveyed people's mask wearing habits in June and August 2020. The demographic with the highest proportional increase in mask wearing was "Right Leaning / Republican," from 53 to 76 percent. One should note that the first time Trump was seen in public wearing a mask was in July 2020, right between the two survey dates.
One can’t attribute increased mask wearing only to Trump’s appearance wearing a mask and Trump still isn’t the most encouraging of mask adoption. It would be reasonable, however, to say there is value in leaders helping normalize societal change by being public adopters of the change, similar to Koizumi's adoption of Cool Biz.
Conclusion and Further ResearchEdit
If the United States government's aim during the pandemic is to get it under control as soon as possible, it should prioritize transparent and constant communication, and at least some consistency in messaging across different parts of the bureaucracy. Additional reasons for antimask sentiments also include the lack of experience with pandemics, particularly in comparison to Asian countries who experienced the SARS outbreak in 2003, severe medical reasons that prohibit them from wearing masks, and mask unavailability in the early days of the pandemic. With vaccines for COVID-19 on the horizon, it would be interesting to explore anti-vaccination sentiment among anti-maskers.
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