To Mask or Not to Mask?

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

There's a heated debate raging at the moment as to the rights and wrongs of wearing a face covering to protect yourself, and others, from the risk of infection during the Cornoavirus pandemic. This argument appears to have had a particularly polarising effect in the good old USA, where groups of Christian fundamentalists have been citing their faith as a reason why they shouldn't have to don a mask. Some people regard masking up as a sensible precaution during a global pandemic while others see it as an overreaction and even a breach of civil liberties.

The message from public health officials is clear - wear a mask to help protect yourself and others from Covid-19. Having succumbed to Coronavirus myself five weeks ago, I have to say I wholeheartedly support this policy. Those who argue that the official response to the pandemic has been an overreaction, or even some kind of global conspiracy to erode our human rights, are failing to grasp just how virulent this virus is. I count myself lucky that my case of Covid was comparatively mild compared to some and that no medical treatment was required. The virus was nevertheless completely unlike anything I'd ever experienced before and remarkably persistent in nature - it took more than four weeks for my symptoms to even begin to subside, and even now I'm still struggling with fatigue, blurred vision and loss of taste and smell. I know a number of other people who've found the virus to be similarly stubborn in its refusal to relinquish its grasp, and now scientists are suggesting that some people could be left with long-term neurological problems. This virus is not a hoax, nor is it flu or the common cold. It's something entirely new. There is still much about Covid-19 that we simply don't know, which is why straightforward measures such as mask-wearing appear a sensible and harmless precaution that's well worth taking.


Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way, particularly in America where Ohio State's Republican Representative Nino Vitale has been arguing that faces are the "likeness of God", and that it is therefore immoral to cover them. Vitale's controversial claim was roundly criticised, but recent public hearings have shown that he's not alone in his beliefs. Because face-covering policies are instituted primarily at the local level, city council meetings across the U.S. have become ground-zero for the backlash against mask-wearing. Take Palm Beach County in Florida as an example. The county made wearing masks in public mandatory, and many residents weren't having it, as the extraordinary video below shows. One woman threatened that city council members would face retribution for their mask policy. "Every single one of you who are obeying the devil's laws are going to be arrested," she asserted. Another community member stepped to the microphone and told the assembly that the city council "wants to throw God's wonderful breathing system out the door." Churches across the the US have been pressuring government officials to let them stay open and continue offering in-person services – sometimes with disastrous consequences. But it seems the lesson that Coronavirus poses a real threat has not yet been fully learned, even by those in leadership positions.


Thankfully, on the other side of the debate, some welcome words of sanity have been offered by Pope Francis, who has spoken out against religious leaders who defy safety measures during the pandemic. Pope Francis likened those who resist life-saving measures such as wearing masks to “adolescents”. The remarks were made at the Vatican on June 21st, to an audience of frontline workers from a region of Italy hard-hit by Covid-19. The Pope praised their heroic service and sacrifice in the midst of the pandemic, and also praised church leaders for their “creativity” in servicing their flock digitally. “They were fathers, not adolescents,” the pontiff said, then later said there was an “adolescent resistance” by many priests to close church doors during the pandemic - despite the fact that churches have repeatedly been hotspots for outbreaks. 


Even though Pope Francis’ words were delivered to a small group of healthcare workers from Northern Italy, they’re relevant worldwide, particularly in America where safety measures like wearing masks and social distancing have been politicised. There are hundreds of videos online of individuals entering buildings without masks, defying public health mandates and putting essential workers and other patrons at risk. “The mask has become the ultimate symbol of [the] new cultural and political divide,” said a recent article published by American media firm Politico. “For progressives, masks have become a sign that you take the pandemic seriously and are willing to make a personal sacrifice to save lives… On the right, the mask is often seen as the symbol of a purported overreaction to the coronavirus.”


All this debate has left some Christians wondering how Jesus would have responded to the pandemic? Some argue that refusing to wear a mask defies the Golden Rule that underpins many Christian teachings: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. American Pastor Kate Murphy asserted that Jesus would have been one of the first to wear a mask. She said: “The bottom line for Christians is this: Even if you believe that the fear surrounding COVID-19 is not justified, that fear is still real. And Jesus didn’t insult or belittle people who were afraid. He went out of his way to come alongside them. Jesus went out of his way to show — in his flesh — that their lives mattered to him. Wearing a mask is a practical way to show that you love your neighbour, to lift the burden of someone who is afraid instead of adding to it.”


Pope Francis likely agrees. In his remarks he said that “God created us for communion, for fraternity, and now more than ever the pretence of betting only on one’s self has proven illusory. It’s illusory to make individualism the guiding principle of society.”


Here at Phoenix we can only echo those remarks. The events surrounding Covid-19 have been unprecedented in their global impact and in many ways the worst is yet to come, with many experts predicting a mental health tsunami will be the inevitable result of the prolonged lockdown and its economic fallout. The outdated culture of "every man for himself" will simply no longer wash. If there's one lesson to be learned from the pandemic, it's the importance of community, fraternity and mutual support. Regardless of your personal faith or belief system, we cannot simply go back to the way things were before Covid-19. If we do, too many innocent people will fall through the cracks and suffer needlessly. There needs to be some kind of "coming together", and it starts by looking out for one another as best we can. I'm hugely grateful for the support I received from friends and neighbours who checked on me regularly and delivered groceries to my door throughout my period of self-isolation. The kind of community spirit we've seen demonstrated throughout lockdown needs to continue and become our normal way of life to ensure that we build a more caring, sharing society going forward. Everyone can make a difference, no matter how small, and it starts by respecting and observing the official advice. Wearing a mask is a simple measure but one which could help save lives. As I said previously, Covid-19 is not a hoax and nor is it a common cold. It's something quite different and unpredictable. We owe it to each other to take sensible precautions.


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