Insights for Flourishing: Masks: Their Meaning in the Era of COVID-19


Person: from the Latin ‘Persona.’  An actor’s mask, a character in a play.  Merriam-Webster.

Americans of all stripes are wearing masks to a degree never before seen in our history. What messages do these face masks convey? And how – in our wearing them – may we be changing our very character and the roles we play?

To address these questions, I will first review several widely held meanings we normally ascribe to the wearing of masks.

In ancient Rome, a Persona was the wooden or clay mask worn by an actor portraying a character in a play or a tale. These facades–comedic, foolish, tragic–were props expressing fundamental human emotions and attributes in a way universally understood. The seminal meaning of Person is entwined with the wearing of masks.

Here in America, wearing masks has long been associated with violence and theft. A dozen states currently have laws on the books banning face coverings. New York took the lead in this regard when, in 1845, anti-masking laws were enacted to help quell riots of masked farmers protesting rent hikes. Many decades after the Civil War, several southern states banned face coverings to combat the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist groups. Interestingly, California’s long-standing anti-masking law was struck down when Iranian-Americans successfully sued the state.  They argued that, without the protection of anonymity afforded by face masks, their lives were endangered when they protested against the newly ascendant Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. In response to this loss in court, California enacted a law making it illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime. (I wonder, do bank robbers take this into account when planning a heist?)

In the field of Environmental Health, masks in the form of respirators are linked to protecting workers from airborne hazards, such as found in mines or in heavy manufacturing. I remember during an inspection, years ago, meeting a crusty old worker who was exposed daily to outdoor airborne carcinogens in the workplace. He assured me that he faithfully wore his mandated, OSHA-approved chemical respirator. Left unsaid was the obvious fact that he had drilled a hole in the side of his mask of just the right diameter so that he could smoke his cigar without taking off his personal protective equipment!

During the Middle Ages when repeated outbreaks of the plague killed tens of millions of people, caretakers wore masks with bird-like beaks filled with theriac, a mixture of herbs, spices, and honey as an antidote to the evil air. Since the 1930s, when they were widely adopted, the wearing of masks has a strong association with the medical profession. The message they convey to the patient is often a conflicted blend of admiration and fear, of thankfulness for the surgeon’s skill and medical care mixed with the dread of debilitating illness and the terror of pain.

Helmets and shields covering the face have long been worn on both the fields of sport and the fields of battle. With the horrendous deployment of chemical warfare agents during World War I, gas masks have been indelibly linked to war and terror.

In a happier vein, in the realm of the arts and entertainment, wearing a mask can symbolize those who seek justice for the downtrodden. American culture is replete with fictional heroes who wear masks: Spider-Man, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Captain America, The Flash, Batman and Robin, Batgirl, Zorro, and my favorite, The Lone Ranger, being examples that come readily to mind.

What new meanings are we now conveying to others when we wear a face mask today?

For some, mask wearing signifies a tangible, evidence-based way a conscientious citizen can protect their neighbor and themselves from disease. Face masks are an emblem of patriotic duty, a visible badge of solidarity against an insidious, invisible enemy.

We do have solid evidence that wearing a double-layer cloth mask over the nose and mouth traps many of the liquid droplets of saliva and mucus released when the wearer talks, sneezes, or coughs.  Researchers at Duke University have recently shown the best non-medical masks can decrease the number of droplets emitted to the air by up to 90 percent. In contrast, they found pulling polyester and spandex neck gaiters over your mouth and nose offered no benefit.

(A simple way to assess your face covering is to see if you can blow out a lit candle.  If you can, your face mask is not working well at all.)

To others, however, the meaning of face masks is more complex, nuanced, and even outright negative. Mandated mask wearing has become a representation of government’s disproportionate, heavy-handed response to this global pandemic. More Americans die each day from medical errors, misdiagnoses, and microbial diseases contracted during a hospital visit than are dying daily from COVID-19. Yet we would not dream of locking down the medical system; the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Furthermore, some perceive an elitist class dynamic at play associated with compulsory mask wearing. None in positions of authority who are advocating mandatory mask wearing and considering further lock downs are living paycheck-to-paycheck. They are not worried about paying for this week’s necessities or troubled as to whether they might be soon evicted from their homes.

Evolving public health guidance regarding masks also has contributed to the uncertainty felt by some citizens as to what is best to do. For example, as recently as April, the World Health Organization Interim Guidance Document titled Advice On the Use of Masks in the Context of COVID-19 stated, “The wide use of masks by healthy people in the community setting is not supported by current evidence and carries uncertainties and critical risks.” Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) originally recommended that only the sick should wear face masks.

Have scientists developed compelling evidence supporting the efficacy of masks in public settings since April?

In the expert judgment of Nils Anders Tegnell, a Swedish physician specializing in infectious disease and the chief epidemiologist for Sweden’s Public Health Agency, evidence regarding the effectiveness of masks is “astonishingly weak.” As someone with immense public responsibility and immersed in the latest scientific literature, he recently lamented to the UK Times, “I’m surprised that we don’t have more or better studies showing what effect masks actually have.”

And what about those critical risks posed by masks alluded to in April by the World Health Organization? Have they been ameliorated now that we better understand this disease? Apparently not.

As of August, the WHO says on their web site:

There are potential risks and disadvantages that should be taken into account in any decision-making process on the use of masks:

Non-medical or fabric masks could increase potential for COVID-19 to infect a person if the mask is contaminated by dirty hands and touched often, or kept on other parts of the face or head and then placed back over the mouth and nose

Depending on the type of mask used, could cause difficulty in breathing

They can lead to facial skin breakdown

They can lead to difficulty with communicating clearly

They can be uncomfortable to wear

It is possible that mask use, with unclear benefits, could create a false sense of security in the wearer, leading to diminished practice of recognized beneficial preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene.

The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in an era of deep-seated anxiety. We cannot long survive in this debilitating state. Civil society requires a high level of trust among its citizens to function well.  Chronic dread makes us weary. Our judgment will be impaired and our compassion exhausted as paranoia strikes deep. Giving in to fear is not the character of an America we want to live in nor the role we can allow ourselves to play.

I do wear a mask when interacting with others in public settings. Given the rural, unpeopled environment in which I spend much of my time, I do so not so much believing that my mask offers protection to others or myself. Rather, I recognize how fearful others might be of me if I did not.

And yet, my choice is tempered by the nature of the situation. I have attended, unmasked, an open-air worship service with a faith community that chose not to wear masks while gathered together in that beautiful meadow.

People of goodwill and sound judgment can arrive at different conclusions regarding the usage of masks in the era of COVID-19. This present crisis will wane; our need to live in harmony with each other will never cease. No matter how stridently we feel regarding the wearing or not wearing of masks, I urge us all not to judge one another harshly. Allow for differences in circumstances and temperament. Exercise forbearance, especially when nerves are frayed and patience is thin. Let not the meaning of masks devolve into symbols of divisiveness, lest the cure prove worse than the disease. 


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