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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Mask Culture: What the Mask Symbolizes in 2022

Mask wearing is politicized in America. A tool for one’s personal protection has suddenly become something “threatening” to core American values. The issue is a matter of the long-time ideological split between individualism and collectivism: how freedom and rights for some infringe upon the rights of others. As a result of the increasingly politicized nature of mask wearing, mask mandates differ across state and country lines. At the University of Maryland, mask mandates require that all students and faculty wear a mask when they are in an indoor facility; however, visit a nearby county, and the mask mandate may be drastically different. Take Baltimore County, for example. Baltimore County has no mask mandate, and Governor Larry Hogan plans to lift the mask mandate for workers and visitors in state buildings next week. Beyond local Maryland, the United States (U.S.) has yet to enforce a national mask mandate while many other nations have. Vietnam, for example, one of the first nations to implement a national mask mandate, had a ninety-nine day streak without a COVID-19 case; whereas the U.S. currently holds an average of 121,134 (average number changes on a daily basis) new cases per day.

Many would agree that not wearing a mask is more comfortable than wearing one. Masks can be a barrier to meeting new people and can make it harder to breathe; for college students, a two-hour long lecture can even induce an annoying acne breakout after class. However, the tradeoff is worse: a continuing global pandemic that still impacts the economy and day-to-day life, and exacerbates health disparities that disproportionately harm minorities in the United States.

The United States’ inability to impose national mandates stems from its history of individualism. This individualism, promoting guaranteed freedoms from too much government power–encourages Americans to not wear a mask simply because ‘it is their right as an American to have to do so’”. Though masks can be uncomfortable, other nations have successfully implemented nationwide mask mandates with less backlash than in the United States. It’s almost as if in the War against COVID-19, as in the wars of U.S. foreign policy history, the U.S. chooses to remain “neutral”. Neutrality doesn’t combat a virus–wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and getting boosted does. In comparison to parts of the U.S. that oppose mask wearing, in some parts of China, there are punishments for not wearing a mask. It seems that many Americans still find it necessary to “prove” their freedom, but this results in health consequences which disproportionately impact minority communities.

Systemic racism also plays a role in mask culture. White men are the least likely demographic to wear a mask. Additionally, white people are the least likely demographic “to become infected, to be hospitalized, and to die from COVID-19”. This disproportionate impact stems from inequities in American communities regarding poverty, access to healthcare, and trust in the medical system. Furthermore, even though men of color only make up just a small percentage of those who refuse to wear a mask, of that small percentage, 67% of those who do not wear a mask do it because they “don’t want to be mistaken as a criminal”. America's history of systemic racism and profiling people of color is another factor that contributes to the differences in mask culture not only in the U.S. compared to nations, but also within subgroups in the U.S.

Although Presidential control has shifted over the course of the pandemic, America has remained unsettled on its stance regarding mask mandates. President Donald J. Trump, who forcefully opposed wearing a mask throughout his presidency and the height of the pandemic–now claims that wearing one is ‘patriotic’. The latter of his statements seems to have come all too late, with deaths and hospitalizations painting a pitiful illustration of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even President Biden regrets not increasing testing faster when he took office but has instituted insured at-home-testing for Americans.

It can be a culture shock leaving a college campus and entering local communities where mask mandates are not enforced. The differences in how communities in the U.S. address mask mandates comes from an individualistic, rather than collectivist, culture. Not all Americans are individualists or collectivists, but in order to combat a global pandemic, compromise is necessary.

Until otherwise stated–which by all means, society hopes for goodness’ sake to be soon–students and citizens alike must follow mask guidelines. Not as a political statement, but to protect the public health of their communities. In collective action, there is progress.


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