Why America must normalize masks beyond the pandemic
Within the first few minutes of watching an episode of “Sherlock” this weekend, I immediately reacted with alarm, wondering, “Where are their masks?” This wasn’t the first time I had been startled by a pre-pandemic image: Looking back, I often feel nauseated to remember traveling in large crowds, exploring amusement parks or flying on airplanes without thinking twice about the germs I was collecting. I’ll never be able to share another Starbucks drink like I used to do with friends every Friday morning or stay in a hotel without wiping down all the surfaces. With this perspective, one practice that I hope to continue is one that is especially important in a pandemic, yet is highly contested by Americans: wearing masks. After many months of mask-wearing, I feel more protected in public places as well as more courteous to others who I could expose to sickness. It only makes sense that Americans should normalize wearing a mask when you are sick, even beyond the setting of a pandemic.
This isn’t a radical idea outside of Western countries. In many East Asian countries, wearing a mask in public spaces sends a message of community solidarity and support, in contrast to America and European countries, where masks are stigmatized as images of apocalypse and fear.
Other influences have also contributed to America’s aversion to masks. From not requiring masks at crowded rallies, ridiculing Democratic nominee Joe Biden for wearing masks, and rarely wearing masks himself, the anti-mask rhetoric and actions of President Trump have provided evidence of America’s anti-mask attitude.
America’s lack of understanding regarding mask-wearing as a community issue extends beyond President Trump’s actions. These ideas trace back to our very own Constitution and Bill of Rights, which emphasize individual liberties. Throughout the pandemic, many anti-mask supporters have used these constitutionally protected freedoms to argue for their decision to not wear a mask and to oppose a government mandate of a mask. Though I fully support the essential nature of the Bill of Rights and individual liberty, there reaches a point where the promotion of individual freedoms over community need is an act of selfishness. There are rules in place that restrict freedoms in order to protect us and our community, such as speed limits in a school zone and seatbelt requirements. Why is wearing a mask any different? The outcry for individual freedom has overshadowed the true purpose of masks: to keep our communities healthy.
One concrete example of a place where normalized masks post-pandemic would keep communities healthy is in the classroom, as many students feel pressured to attend school despite being sick and take the risk of spreading sickness to others. In high school, my history teacher feared coming to school every day due to her pregnancy and begged students to stay home if they were sick. If masks had been normalized in schools at the time, my teacher could have potentially felt much safer coming to school knowing students who felt sick would wear masks to protect her. From schools to public places to work settings, all types of communities can benefit from the normalization of masks as a sign of common courtesy even post-pandemic. I personally see myself wearing a mask in the post-pandemic future when going to a grocery store or other public spaces if I am sick.
Instead of dealing with the problem directly, America has learned to live with COVID-19. Despite this reality, I am hopeful that we can shift our perspective and change how we see masks in America. How do we break down the barriers of stigma and societal pressure? The answer is complicated and lacks a single solution, but we can start with voting for leaders––both national and local––who exemplify wearing a mask for the good of our country and local communities. From there, we can work towards separating the mask from its negative stigma by promoting messages of unification and compassion. Though America has a lot of work to do before we can normalize masks, I hope that beyond the pandemic, we will be able to see masks as a symbol of community effort and common courtesy.