Face Masks Are The Most Unlikely Political Football Of Our Lifetimes by Tom Beasley

I find myself wondering a lot about how the humble face covering became such a divisive political issue. It’s not as if there isn’t enough going on, even without the whole pandemic unpleasantness. Britain is heading towards a kamikaze break from the EU, America is rampaging into an election in which the incumbent President seems primed to contest a hypothetical defeat well beyond polling day and racially-charged unrest over police brutality is still bubbling under the surface. But the world is getting worked up over a little bit of fabric in front of your face that might save the lives of everyone’s gran.

It’s simple really. Pretty much everyone should wear a face covering pretty much all of the time when they’re not at home. Unless you’re eating or drinking, you should more or less always wear one indoors – and certainly in shops and on public transport – and, though the risk of transmission is believed to be much lower in the open air, wearing one outdoors is mostly advisable also. There are, of course, totally valid exceptions for those with disabilities or medical reasons.

Now, I’m happy to confess that it took me a long time to come around on masks. A week or so before the UK locked down in March, I was back home in Coventry and found great hilarity in counting the number of people wearing masks – especially building site ones, which I still find baffling as they’re designed to keep out small particles of dust and debris, rather than infinitesimally tiny virus droplets. For a long time, the science was divided but now, more than six months into this sorry affair, almost all of the experts agree – masks are a good thing.

And yet, that eminently sensible few paragraphs of advice could scarcely be more contentious in the world today.

Like so many of the great political nonsenses of our current post-truth, post-sense era, this all seemed to start in America. As the pandemic began to rage on his shores, Donald Trump repeatedly implied that election opponent Joe Biden’s use of a face mask implied some sort of weakness. Although POTUS has since been pictured wearing a mask and does seem to be broadly in favour, there’s still a large gap in their use along partisan lines. A Gallup poll in August found 97% of Democrat voters said they wore masks in indoor settings when social distancing was not possible, compared to just 70% of Republicans. When it came to outdoor settings, the gap was even more stark – 64% of Democrats to just 24% of Republicans. When Trump speaks, his base listens.

Naturally, the issue has subsequently jetted across the Atlantic to the UK like a shipment of chlorinated chicken. That line won’t be at all funny in a few years’ time, one imagines.

In Britain, COVID-19 has sparked a sort of Avengers: Endgame of conspiracy theorists, with mostly reasonable mask sceptics rubbing shoulders with those people who still post ludicrous anti-vaccine stuff on Facebook and the weirdos who burned down 5G masts back in the spring. That’s not to mention lizard people expert David Icke and Piers Corbyn – brother of Jeremy – ranting about “state control”. As I write this in the first week of September, a talkRADIO presenter has just cut up his face mask with scissors during a broadcast. Face masks seem to be the one hill on which all of society’s worst political thinkers have decided to die. Possibly literally.

The desire to get back to normal is entirely reasonable. But the risk is still there. This virus has not gone away and will not go away for quite some time. Restrictions are easing and life is slowly creeping back into the country, edging ever closer to what we all want. And if what it takes to get back to normal quicker is to wear a little bit of fabric over my face to protect everyone else, then it’ll take more than a ranting reality TV host from America or a blowhard on the radio to stop me.

They even sell Paddington ones now. Nothing with his face on it could possibly be a bad thing.

© 2020 Tom Beasley

Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at tomjbeasley@gmail.com.