Politics Opinion

Forget COVID — stupidity is the real contagion

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(Cartoon by Mark David / @MDavidCartoons)

With the pandemic far from over, governments are encouraging a disturbingly relaxed attitude towards life-saving masks, writes Dr Jennifer Wilson.

OF ALL THE STUPIDITY of which humans are capable, it’s tough singling out any one example.

But surely turning the wearing of face masks into a culture war must be right up there.

In a chemist in a small NSW coastal town, there are notices advising us to cough into our elbows, wash our hands and socially distance. Paying for my earplugs, I comment to the assistant that COVID is airborne, yet there is no mention of wearing masks on the advice. A shrug is her only response.

I want masks with “COVID is airborne” printed across them because the majority of people seem to neither know nor care how this disease is spread and are entirely disinterested in taking the primary precaution (after vaccination) that can help protect them.

And here’s the crux of it. The mask will help protect them. Not only from COVID but from flu and various other viruses doing the rounds. Don’t they want to be protected? As we say on social media, WTF not?

I cannot fathom why anyone would choose to risk illness when they can take a simple precaution that may help them avoid it. Is “I’ve had COVID three times” the new demonstration of fortitude?

The New South Wales Government advocates but does not mandate the use of face masks. The Queensland Government has similarly advised their use during the latest COVID wave. This advice will likely make very little difference and people will continue to unnecessarily infect others because we share air and you can’t socially distance from shared air, even if we all sneeze into our elbows.

The face mask has become co-opted primarily as a symbol, rather than being acknowledged as a significant tool in an array of preventative options.

The mask reminds us, uncomfortably, that we are in the midst of a pandemic, under threat from a virus with a vast array of unpredictable consequences.

There is currently no more potent visual reminder of our precarious situation than the mask. And nobody wants to be reminded of our vulnerability to illness and its possible aftermath.

The consequences we know of so far, for example, long COVID and cardiac arrest and sudden death in young people are seriously alarming yet not alarming enough to inspire the majority of the population to don the mask.

If we don’t wear masks, we can pretend it isn’t happening.

Masks aren’t a symbol of restricted freedom now they aren’t mandated. They’re a reminder that there is something we ought to be extremely wary of and nobody wants to think about that.

Wearing the mask is admitting the truth: we don’t have control.

However, recognising this reality ought to be understood as a positive thing. We ought to stay mindful of the situation we are in and willingly adjust ourselves to the precautions we need to take to stay safe, while also respecting the safety of others.

Those demanding freedom from restrictions (despite the fact that there currently are none) are actually demanding freedom from the reality of human vulnerability, a freedom that is nobody’s to grant.

That state and federal governments have refused to take responsibility for public health in the matter of COVID-19 is an astounding failure of governance. Not only have they removed all mandated precautions, but they have also entirely failed to produce ongoing public health campaigns advising the population on how best to protect itself against recurrent infections. It’s either mandate or nothing.  

The cowardice demonstrated by politicians, who obviously fear the potential loss of votes far more than they fear the potential loss of life and well-being, is sickening. The mantra of “personal responsibility” has replaced all obligations to public health at both state and federal levels. We cannot take personal responsibility for an airborne virus. We share the air. If governments refuse to take on the responsibility that is clearly theirs, the inevitable outcome is a reckless minimisation of risk.

As infuriating as it is that hardly anyone will wear a mask, it’s also understandable that if leaders aren’t models for the protection of self and others, people generally are less likely to think they need to be concerned.

The stupidity is infectious, more infectious than COVID-19. That the face mask has become weaponised in an entirely unnecessary culture war, putting people at entirely unnecessary risk for absolutely no good reason, will go down as one of the great stupidities of history.

It’s a piece of material across your face that might save your life, the life of someone you love, the life of someone who needs you to consider their welfare.

Be a grown-up. Wear it.

Dr Jennifer Wilson is an IA columnist, a psychotherapist and an academic. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter @NoPlaceForSheep.

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