On January 19, 2020, Washington state reported the first U.S. case of the novel Coronavirus. By the end of March, some 245 million Americans were under inflexible stay-at-home mandates to “flatten the curve.” Since then and beyond, mainstream news has countered every ostensible stride towards normalcy with starkly pessimistic and lugubrious reporting, all while branding anti-lockdown dissidents as backward and unwashed white nationalists bent on threatening public health. One of the hallmarks of the sweeping response to COVID-19 in America is its legal commission of masks and its propagandized encouragement thereof.
Recently, I stumbled upon a neatly choreographed video on Twitter that touted the usage of cloth masks as noble and fashionable — and even to some extent divine. The linked video consists of a miscellaneous and diverse assembly of faces, each with testimonies of what their mask means to them. For one woman, her face mask is her “armor,” and for others, their “shield.” Strikingly, one African-American woman describes her mask as her “savior” — after which a spiritual hymn plays in the background — and for another, the meager piece of cloth is their “best friend.” The rather unusual platitude ends with all participants coming together to recite in unison but with fluctuating incidence and degrees of volume, “seeing you, and you, and you in your masks, always makes me feel a little bit better… This year, my mask has been my way of saying ‘I care about you’… It’s been my way of saying ‘I love you.’"
Ostensibly, masks go much deeper than mere protection from the Coronavirus. In many ways, they are an initiation by which people certify their belonging to a larger social project; still less are they defense mechanisms against COVID-19. Unwittingly strolling into a supermarket without a mask would probably warrant a response analogous to a situation where someone decided to walk into the same supermarket without a shirt or pants. In other words, eschewing a mask around others is not seen as an active and menacing threat but in contravention of a newly engendered social expectation. Indeed, the idiom with which people address anti-maskers verbally or otherwise is not rooted in fear but bewilderment and concern.
Properly conceived, masks are a form of depersonalization that reify individual selves held together only by their common motive to further isolate themselves from one another. The pervasive embrace of face masks is a symptom of a deeper commitment to mutual indifference — and our devotion to this commitment binds us together as a global people. Hence the concurrent emphasis on globalism and internationalism, in spite of the fact that globalist policies exacerbated the pandemic in its early stages. Furthermore, places and organizations that drew on more local and personal affiliations and connections — church, school, extracurriculars, and other civic organizations — have all been forced into perpetual closure and substituted by a trivial piece of raiment that comes to represent our increasing social atomization. Nowadays, you help others not by actively participating in your community, local politics, and in your local school system — but by doing just the opposite. You help others by isolating yourself from others. Efforts to recuperate what once was — spending time with friends and family and even doing so responsibly — are rendered selfish and indelibly evil.
Interestingly enough, behaviors and gestures aimed at freeing us from one another are now regarded as quintessentially unifying. In sum, the Coronavirus pandemic has precipitated the creation of a new kind of liberated individual — asocial, autonomous, and sharing no commonalities with others besides their sheer lack of similarity. This social breakdown has undeniably contributed to a lost capacity to speak in the language of the common good. Yet, it seems as though appeals to the common good are most compelling and demanded today amidst a worldwide pandemic.