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Op-Ed: Masks Off? The Moral Logic of Living with COVID

What will we do the next time a virus comes for us?

Mark Read Jun 16

Dear Comrades,

In late May I took a trip to New York City to see my niece perform in a school play, Oliver, in which she was playing the lead role. I hadn’t been to the city in a while. I was looking forward to returning to the place I’d proudly called home for 22 years and to witnessing my 12-year old niece in her shining moment. 

While waiting in line to enter the massive school building in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, I ran into an activist friend of mine and his wife. By “activist friend,” I mean that our friendship was formed in the context of political movements, direct action and protest marches. He and I met through organizing Critical Mass bike rides in the city back in the early 2000s, and we’ve since remained pretty close. Their son, as it turned out, was also in the play. It was a wonderful surprise to see him, the kind of quasi-random encounter that happens to you after you’ve lived somewhere for a long time. It made me feel at home.

When we entered the building there was a moment of uncertainty around masking. Were they mandatory or optional? Should I wear one or not? It turned out they were optional, and this is where things got interesting, at least for me. People were all over the map on this choice. I opted not to wear one, as did my brother and his wife. My friend and his wife, who sat next to me, opted to wear theirs. Once we were in the auditorium, as the crowd gathered, a glance around the room revealed an approximately 50/50 split. Some friends of my brothers came in from Manhattan, sat on the other side of me and proceeded to furtively take their masks on and off throughout the performance, unsure about what the proper thing to do was. Onstage, the performers were all unmasked except for two Black kids and one white kid. My friend’s son was unmasked on stage but then wore a mask when he talked to us after. It was a hodge-podge of responses to the moment, a kind of “you do you” chaos that was hard to make sense of, and about which nobody seemed the least bit interested in having a conversation. I didn’t bring it up nor did anyone else, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it, doubting my own choice, wondering if I was being judged. Maybe I’m just an obsessive personality, but masks are a pretty big deal, aren’t they? Not only are they a significant public-health measure, they have also become a potent signifier of political ideology, a statement of values, an assertion of concern and belief in science. 

We need to insist instead on a world built upon a bedrock of interdependence and mutuality, such as we saw in full bloom at the start of the crisis. What would that look like? 

We are in a strange moment in the COVID pandemic. We’re far enough in to be able to look back and evaluate our responses, but there really is no definitive end in sight and we seem to be stuck with some new normals that are, well, alienating. Mostly I think we’ve all become exhausted thinking about it, especially in light of the escalating series of other crises and horrors that unfold with unrelenting ferocity and speed. As I write this, the nightly news reports mass shooting after mass shooting. 

The nation is convulsed by spasms of violence that have been increasing in frequency and intensity over the last two years. Cultural and political polarization has risen to the point where some pundits are predicting another Civil War, for which January 6th appears a prelude. War rages anew in Europe (while endless conflict has become the assumed state of much of the world) and the planet’s life-supporting systems hurtle towards collapse. Meanwhile, the left seems to be tearing itself apart from within. Cruelty, disrespect and reckless violence seem to be the order of the day as basic civility, kindness and just simple decency erode before our eyes. Things are bad out there. Despair is a widely-shared reaction, and that’s not unwarranted. It is a time for tenderness above all. But what is the best way for us to be tender towards one another, now and for the foreseeable future?

At this juncture I think that any conversation about what we should or shouldn’t be doing to slow the spread of the virus needs to keep a broader social context in mind. Perhaps more importantly, any conversations that we have in the future about how to respond to a new virus must take a more holistic view of community health than we have taken during this pandemic. Our calculus must expand beyond case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. The social constraints that have been adopted by the majority of society have taken their own grave toll, in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

A recent study in the National Bureau of Economic Research (1) attempts to get a handle on the cost of those constrictions in terms of lives lost. They estimate the number of “non-COVID excess deaths” to be 97,000 per year over the last two years, about half of which could, in my view, list social alienation as their proximate cause. But of course the toll can’t be solely measured by body count. Heightened anxiety and depression is felt widely and deeply, especially amongst the young, constituting what the surgeon general calls a “youth mental health crisis.” Above and beyond this, or perhaps woven through it, is the palpable sense that we are witnessing the rapid unraveling of the essential social fabric that holds the project of human civilization together. That has consequences that frankly terrify me. The origins of that unraveling predate the pandemic, and there is no simple cause and effect to be identified, but it’s no longer tenable to maintain that the two — social constriction and social fracture — are unrelated phenomena, as the media continues to do in a way that feels eerily akin to the practice of reporting on catastrophic weather events without mentioning global warming.
But what’s the right thing to do right now? How do we calculate risk and safety, for ourselves and others, both in regards to COVID itself and the social alienation that results from cautious behaviors like distancing and masks? How do we account for the most vulnerable amongst us, both to the virus and to the anxiety and depression that result from social alienation? What about Long COVID? What about social fracture?  How do we begin to calculate the ramifications of our choices, both individually and collectively? I don’t have any certain answers to these questions, and frankly I don’t think there are any certain answers at this point, only various shades of gray. The moral clarity of the early days of the pandemic seem like a distant memory now, and part of me misses the certainty I felt back then.

Spring 2020: The birth of an inverted moral logic

In the spring of 2020 the first wave of COVID-19 blew through New York City like a class five hurricane. For months sirens wailed day and night. Hospitals were overwhelmed as bodies stacked up in their parking lots because there was no place to put the overflow. Everyone was rattled. The specter of death hung over us, and nobody knew exactly what was going to happen. It was terrifying and disorienting. 

As with so many other disasters, the people of the city pulled together to try and get through it. Mutual aid networks formed to get food to people that couldn’t leave their homes or had their livelihoods disrupted by the lockdowns. Cheers for front-line healthcare workers echoed across the cityscape every evening, loud and inspiring. In my building we started a WhatsApp group to discuss and distribute information about everything from which neighbors needed groceries to buying shares in local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) to plans for rent strikes, and of course where to find masks or how to make your own mask. Moments of rupture such as the first wave of COVID-19 can be frightening, but also exhilarating in the way that people on the ground respond by taking care of one another. It is as though the wound to the social body generates a powerful immune response from that body, a flood of extraordinary prosocial behaviors that serve to protect and heal the collective, a phenomenon described by Rebecca Solnit in her book Hope in the Dark:

To live entirely for oneself in private is a huge luxury, a luxury countless aspects of this society encourage, but like a diet of pure foie gras it clogs and narrows the arteries of the heart…most of us crave more deeply something with more grit, more substance…The 1989 Loma Prieta quake shook San Francisco in to the here and now: I remember how my anger at someone suddenly ceased to matter, and so did my plans. The day after the quake, I walked around town to see people I cared about and the world was local and immediate. Not just because the Bay Bridge was damaged and there were practical reasons to stay home, but because the long term perspective from which so much dissatisfaction and desire comes was shaken too: life, meaning, value were close to home, in the present. We who had been through the quake were present and connected. Connected to death, to fear, to the unknown, but in being so connected one could feel empathy, passion, and heroism as well. We could feel strongly, and that is itself something hard to find in the anesthetizing distractions of this society.

If you substitute “virus” for “quake,” that’s an excellent depiction of what life in early COVID was like, for many of us. The fact that this was a crisis of contagion, however, created a series of inversions in regards to what constitutes prosocial behavior. In this crisis, what constituted prosocial behavior was, paradoxically, a set of antisocial choices: staying home, staying apart, maintaining distance, moving everything online and wearing masks. Mask wearing, in fact, became the most emblematic of these behaviors, because the masks then available didn’t protect the wearer so much as they protected others. It was a purely altruistic act: I do not make this choice to benefit myself, I do this for you, I do this for the vulnerable and the old, for the immuno-compromised. To wear a mask was to care for your community, as was staying at home and staying online. Our interdependence — the reality that one’s actions directly impact the wellbeing of others — was made dramatically explicit by COVID-19. We were in this together, inextricably intermingled by our very breath, on which a wily virus traveled, bent on our death and destruction. As a leftist, a socialist in fact, I have always put social well-being at the center of my ethics and my politics. It is SOCIALism, after all. Interdependence is a core principle. For me, and for everyone I respect and feel politically aligned with, the prosocial moral logic of making otherwise antisocial choices made, and makes, inherent sense. But it still felt odd, even at that moment. It was as though we were all doctors being asked — or actually asking each other — to kill (or at least wound) a patient in order to save the patient. In order to save society, we had to do all kinds of things that were bad for society. I accepted that logic, but nevertheless it made me feel uneasy, and more than a little sad. 

Any doubts I had were pretty quickly dispelled when I watched members of the rightwing respond to the compelling moral logic of interdependence. There was an almost immediate backlash to government-mandated prosocial behaviors such as mask mandates. 

Gun-toting cadres of libertarians resisted “Big Brother’s” efforts to protect the public from a deadly disease, crying “My body, my choice!,” insisting that their individual liberty trumped any consideration of social benefit. They refused to wear masks based on this distorted adherence to liberty above all else, just as they have continually insisted on their right to buy AR-15 assault rifles. Libertarianism in my view is inherently sociopathic. It is purely anti-social and totally dystopian, paving the way to a Darwinian, eugenicist, fascistic future that holds no care for the vulnerable whatsoever. This kind of insistence on the centrality of liberty wasn’t new by any means, and the backlash against the idea of interdependence was certainly predictable. Still, it was shocking to see how those in power for whom “liberty” is ideologically central (the Republican party) stoked a culture war to preserve that principle’s dominant position within U.S. political discourse, even if that meant more sickness and death among their supporters.

The lines of a culture war over COVID had been drawn, and they only became starker when the same social forces that refused masks went on to storm the capital and threaten the very basis of liberal democracy. Fear of COVID was now accompanied by a justifiable fear of fascist rule, a threat that continues to loom over us all. In the cauldron of these intersecting terrors, the mask, and COVID caution more generally, became ever-more culturally important as symbols, signifiers of belonging to one political tribe or the other, front lines on the culture war. On this side of the fence there is reason, science and collective care. On that side of the fence there are dragons. It became increasingly important and comforting to be able to signal to others that you were with them, not only in the duty to protect others from disease, but in resistance to fascist rule. In terrifying times, it is only natural to want to stick closely by your herd. The mask in particular became one public way to find comradeship amidst the chaos, in a world that feels increasingly dangerous and out of control. 

As this culture war over COVID caution continued and deepened, I became increasingly uneasy. I worried that, in defining ourselves by our opposition to the other side, we were slipping into a reactionary mode, one that was now affecting the way that we evaluated the risks versus benefits of covid cautious policies. How would we move on from this, and how would we handle the next virus that came our way? Despite a continually improving situation with COVID itself (free and available vaccines, increasing levels of  immunity in the community, effective treatments, decreasing levels of severe illness and death), and a clearly escalating crisis of social alienation, many of my friends remain fixed in their position that reducing transmission of the virus has to remain the first ethical priority for those sincerely committed to public health and collective care.

Unfortunately the CDC and other public health agencies continue to mostly support this position, in a manner that at this point has begun to feel extreme. For instance, the CDC continues to air public service announcements on the radio such as “Social Distancing Hero,” which I heard just last week.

Similarly, those in charge of the public health response in New York City have been plastering the subways with these (seen below) advertisements.

The radio ad is particularly disturbing. An ad that pushes parents to cancel their children’s playdates in favor of virtual gatherings does not seem to understand or take much interest in  the toll that social isolation is taking on children. And while I understand the value in masking on subways, which can be a powerful vector of community transmission, I find the depiction of “best” utterly depressing and infuriating. The message here is to stay distanced while masked, to not interact with others and to stare at your screen. I do not want to disparage the CDC or the public health community writ large. They have by and large done an admirable job under extraordinarily challenging circumstances, first and foremost the unrelenting attacks upon them by right wing reactionary elements in our society that, again, prize “liberty” over any notion of social benefit. All that being said, these ads make it clear to me that we should not look to public health officials to wisely determine social policies. I simply do not understand how they can continue to advocate for the same measures they were advocating for in Spring of 2020, as though nothing has changed

In terms of masks specifically, the situation has dramatically changed, hasn’t it? It’s no longer accurate to say that wearing a mask won’t protect the wearer or that we must all wear them to protect everyone. N95 and other respirator masks have become readily available, which ought to change the moral equation. If someone wants to do everything they can to avoid catching the virus they can now buy a mask and wear it in a way that will offer them substantial protection, whether anyone else is masked or not. That’s great news! So why should masks need to be mandated at all at this point, anywhere? And yes, those masks should be free and made widely available to anyone that wants one. We should absolutely fight for that. But fight for mask mandates or mandatory masks for activist meetings, liberal cultural events and progressive churches? I don’t think there’s a clear moral case for them anymore except perhaps during times of significant surges, particularly if cloth masks are counted as sufficient when we know that they are not. 

What’s the big deal about wearing a mask though?

In 1961, in Ethics and Infinity,  the French moral philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote in Ethics and Infinity:

Firstly there is the straightness of the face, its directness, its defenselessness. The skin of the face is most naked and defenseless …the face carries within it a certain poverty; the proof of that is that we try to mask this poverty by assuming poses, an attitude. The face is exposed, vulnerable, as if inviting an act of violence. At the same time, the face is what prohibits us from killing.

For Levinas, the primary ground of experience for any ethical philosophy must be the encounter with the Other (anyone other than oneself). In that encounter we are always choosing savagery or generosity (and everything in between). The evaluation of those choices forms the foundation of any conversation about ethics, and the face plays an absolutely crucial role in all of it. According to Levinas, ethics are impossible to configure or understand without the face-to-face encounter. Simply put, we cannot be ethical creatures — that is, creatures that concern themselves with ethical questions — unless we meet the Other in person, face-to-face.

A friend of mine recently told me that masks were no big deal, especially to the youth, because they’d adapted. “Hey my daughter loves them,” he texted me,  “she says she gets to hide.” My heart broke when I read that. What happens to a society where the vulnerability of the face is too often literally shielded from view? How can we develop an ethics in the absence of that vulnerability? Whenever I hear someone express the idea that masks aren’t a big deal, I feel my whole body tense up and my stomach go into knots. I can only conclude, from speaking with others, that different people experience this very differently, but I think for a great many people the masks are deeply alienating and depressing as hell. I experience them as a bad omen. They give me the sense of an emerging dystopia.

We could be pressuring our government to stockpile PPP equipment; train and hire more doctors and nurses; fund more research into long covid as well as medical care for those with long term disabilities; make treatments and tests available and affordable to everyone; and invest in retrofitting public buildings to provide better ventilation.

What, after all, keeps societies from splintering and devolving into Mad Max worlds where violence is the only currency that matters? Hint: It is not the rule of law, not fear of capture or punishment, as conservatives would insist is the case. That is part of it, of course, but the primary glue that holds things together is empathy, or at least it should be. Love, not fear, is the binding force for any society worth living in, and empathy is a prerequisite to love. It isn’t always easy to generate or maintain, and it’s far too easy to lose. That masks impede the development and maintenance of empathic connection has always been true and well-understood across cultures. If, for example, we listen to feminists from countries where facial coverings are mandated for women, we will hear this very point being made. The facial covering is well understood by feminists as a cultural strategy to enable the subjugation of women. It is easier to dehumanize and subjugate a population for whom you don’t have full empathy. 

At our final class meeting at Southern Maine Community College, where I currently teach, we were required to return to wearing masks in the classroom, after two months of masks being optional. The first thing Abdullah, one of my favorite students this semester, said upon entering the room was, “Professor, are we going to have to keep doing this forever?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but I heard the unmistakable despair in his question, which I felt too. The feeling in the classroom had changed markedly when the masks initially came off, in March and we’d all noticed it. There was more levity and much more back and forth, more dialogue. Are masking requirements going to be the new normal now and forever, especially (possibly exclusively) within liberal-progressive-activist circles? Even if not required, are they just going to be worn (by many) for the rest of our lives? I think this is what Abdullah was asking. I think the answer might be yes, and I wonder if that’s a bigger problem than many of my friends might think it is.

We are living in a society that is experiencing what I view as an acute empathy crisis. It is one crisis amongst many, as previously mentioned, but I don’t know how we begin to solve the other problems in the absence of an intact social fabric. That’s what really frightens me these days: The prospect of a cultural and social terrain that impedes the formation of the social bonds that we will desperately need to build a better world. How can we rebuild empathy and begin to repair the social fabric if we aren’t encountering one another face-to-face?

The crisis didn’t start in 2020

Let me be clear: I do not believe that this crisis of empathy began with the pandemic, nor do I think it will be solved by taking off our masks. The decline of civic organizations and the increasing atomization of society are long-term trends that have been well documented and detailed in books such as Robert Putnam’s insightful Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it he describes how a once-rich tapestry of volunteer and community organizations has withered over the last century, leaving society with diminishing opportunities for people to come together and work towards a common good. 

The advent of the internet and social media has accelerated our atomization. In her profound book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle raises the alarm about the dehumanizing effects of lives increasingly lived online rather than with other people: 

Technology is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities. And as it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Digital connections and the sociable robot may offer the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. Our networked life allows us to hide from each other, even as we are tethered to each other. We’d rather text than talk.

If you want to see an example of a society with an empathy deficit, look no further than Twitter or Facebook, where disembodied, faceless encounters engender an endless cacophony of misunderstanding and cruelty. That is not a society that I’d think anyone would want to live in.

The trends towards alienation and atomization were present long before the pandemic struck, without a doubt. It is, however, undeniably true that the measures we have been taking to slow the pandemic down have greatly exacerbated the problem. First and foremost, they have resulted in a dramatic increase in the time we spend online rather than with one another. This, combined with less opportunity to establish empathic connection due to masks, have been the proverbial gas on the fire of incivility, a fire whose dangers may today be greater than COVID.

What is the current level of threat from COVID?

First of all, I am not an epidemiologist, or virologist, or any sort of medical expert. I cannot speak with authority about long COVID, or other risks. Whatever I do know is gathered from reading reliable sources of information such as the New York Times, Science magazine, Nature magazine and other fact-based science reporting. It is very clear that the Infection Fatality Rate (IFR) for COVID-19 is a fraction of what it was in the spring of 2020. A quick look at this June 19 chart from the New York Times makes that very clear:

In April of 2020 the CDC estimated the IFR of COVID to be .65%, which was more or less on par with the estimates of other countries and the World Health Organization. By comparison, the IFR for influenza is generally estimated around .1%, so COVID-19 was at that time more than six times as lethal as the flu and far more contagious. Since then the virus has grown more contagious but evidently less virulent. Either that or increased levels of immunity through vaccination and prior infection have brought the IFR down and down again. Regardless of the cause, the results are clear. The most recent wave of COVID saw an increase in cases (and probably a bigger increase than the chart shows due to underreporting) but very little increase in ICU patients or deaths, which both are almost flat. That is remarkable, yet very little attention has been paid to this by the mainstream media until just recently. While the CDC has not shared any new estimates of COVID-19’s IFR since Spring of 2020, scientists in South Africa have crunched the numbers (2) and they estimate that their IFR for COVID-19 during Omicron was slightly lower than the IFR for influenza. It appears that, while the virus remains far more contagious than the flu, it may no longer be more lethal. Times have changed, pretty dramatically.

I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of COVID-19. It has killed more than a million people in the United States and disabled untold numbers of others through long COVID. I respect the fear that many people continue to feel, some of them acutely. I recognize that fear as rational, even though I may not share it. People are just trying to protect themselves and their loved ones, or in many cases, just trying to avoid the disruptions that a case of COVID will cause. Furthermore, I am in no way implying that those who continue to try and avoid infection are somehow failing humanity or that they are somehow responsible for the harms that quarantine measures and COVID caution have exacted upon society. That said, I do think that there is a cadre of COVID alarmists that have made media careers out of needlessly terrifying an already traumatized public. Those people and the producers that have given them a platform should be called out for the damage they have done, and we should look deeply into potential ulterior motives, but I personally carry no judgments about people’s choices on how to live their lives during what has been a truly confusing and frightening period. 

The play was the thing

When I think back to the night of the play, I feel a mixture of hope and foreboding in regards to how we might choose, collectively, to live not only with COVID, which will be with us forever, but future viruses which will almost certainly challenge us in similar ways. 

The subway ads I saw on the way to the show left me brooding about the future. Public-health experts seem incapable of taking into account the costs of social alienation. They continue to see transmission of a decreasingly virulent disease as the most dangerous problem facing the nation, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. I also fear a growing deference towards technocratic expertise and an unsettling lack of skepticism towards authority amongst my peers. I fear that, together, this will produce a continued insistence that unending COVID caution is the measure of science-based prosocial virtue, an inverted moral logic that many will hold onto regardless of changing conditions. .

Yet it was also clear to me that evening that the judgmental and accusatory impulses around masking have abated, for most people. I no longer think that masks are universally accepted as a key signal of leftist credibility or moral virtue, and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. At this moment, “you do you” seems to me like a much healthier orientation — a more tender orientation — towards one another than “you should.” 

I fear a growing deference towards technocratic expertise and an unsettling lack of skepticism towards authority amongst my peers.

The problem with “you do you” is that it’s a capitulation to the Libertarian vision of society, where we devolve our response to a collective crisis into a set of individual decisions. We should not let that happen; we need to insist instead on a world built upon a bedrock of interdependence and mutuality, hints of which we saw at the start of the crisis. What would that look like? 

For starters, we should be fighting harder than ever for universal health care. Health care is a social good and a human right that must be made available to all. Housing, too, ought to be understood as a social good and a human right that should be affordable to all. These ought to be our North Stars, our larger goals coming out of the pandemic, but there are plenty of smaller steps that we can fight for as well. In immediate and practical terms, we could be pressuring our government to stockpile PPP equipment; train and hire more doctors and nurses; fund more research into long covid as well as medical care for those with long term disabilities; make treatments and tests available and affordable to everyone; and invest in retrofitting public buildings to provide better ventilation. The failure of our government to do these things-  their failure to keep us safe-  has, I believe, contributed to some of the hyper-caution that people feel a need to exercise, so let’s focus our time and energy on fighting for these political victories that will advance collective well being.

The play was a sweet serenade to the courage and determination of teachers, administrators, staff and students, who worked tirelessly to wrestle a shred of  normalcy out of yet another tough school year dominated by the pandemic. They were all so terribly brave, and we were all so enormously fortunate, especially the children. It was moving just to be there. I still feel grateful.

My niece, in the meantime, was phenomenal in her turn as Oliver. She sang like an angel as she skipped and strolled across the vast stage in elegant period costume, donning a dapper cap and speaking with her best British accent. She seemed so grown up to me, so poised and confident. She was beaming afterwards, as were all the kids. Whatever pang of guilt I felt for being maskless was overshadowed the moment she looked out into the audience at the end of the show, searched out her people, met my eye and saw me smile, from ear to ear. I believe that she will remember that smile for a long time.

Mark Read teaches Media Studies, Art, and Utopian Possibility at New York University. He is best known as the founder of The Illuminator.

•   •   •

(1) The fact that I am left to reference medical research performed by economists is entirely due to the incuriosity of the CDC and other public health institutions that have not shown any interest in trying to understand the toll of social alienation. Considering that the last two and a half years have been the most massive experiment in human social engineering in history, that lack of curiosity is itself remarkable.

(2) The key quotes are these: “It is possible to calculate an approximate case fatality rate (the percentage of cases that eventually succumb to COVID-19) from the daily case and death numbers, and from estimates of the delay between diagnosis and death.” Throughout the pandemic, about 2.5% to more than 7.5% of reported cases have died. Only at the tail end do we see a difference. Highlighted in red is the Omicron surge now trailing off in South Africa. The case mortality rate has been running at 0.7%. That is a reduction of at least 75% from the virulence of prior strains.

[…] 

The CFR is the number of fatalities divided by the number of cases. The number of cases is typically the number reported by health authorities, based on positive test results. CFR estimates may be much higher than IFR estimates because true infections may vastly outnumber documented infections. If Omicron is causing less severe disease, then many individuals with Omicron may not be getting tested. Thus, the IFR for Omicron may be much less than the 0.75% estimated below.”

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