‘Mask-wearing’ as a Social Invention: Coping with the Covid-19 Pandemic

Written by Mickey Glantz. Posted in All Fragilecologies, Society

Published on December 29, 2020 with 1 Comment

“A social invention is a new [concept], law, organization or procedure that changes the ways in which people relate to themselves or to each other, either individually or collectively.” The following images provide examples of what could be considered as social inventions. Take for example the space age. The catalyst to the space age was the 1956 launching into space of Sputnik by the Soviet Union. The concept of the space age sparked unlimited possibilities to people, governments, science & engineering and corporations. The Blue Marble is another social invention first captured in a photo by astronauts from space of Planet Earth. floating alone it showed that we are alone in the universe. We are Planet A: there is no Planet B.

Spaceship Earth is yet another social invention, one that drew attention to the Planet’s limited natural resources suggesting the inhabitants of Earth needed to realize they had to survive on the resources on board. This in turn sparked concern about the Planet’s carrying capacity and how to feed increasing populations. This led to the concept of the “tragedy of the commons.

Introducing social inventions and their importance in history draws attention to mask-wearing. It is a needed social invention in the time of the novel coronavirus COVID-19. Now is the right time for a review of the value of a mask-wearing tactic as a “social invention” during the COVID-19 pandemic and its influence on individual and government behavior. Where we are now with mask-wearing and why, where have we been and why, and where must we go and why?

Clearly, medical researchers and public health planners continue efforts to improve their understanding of highly infectious diseases and societal responses to prepare for their often likely quick-onset occurrences. In the case of the Covid-19 coronavirus and the use of masking as a tactic to control community spread, there is a serious divergence of opinion between the medical pandemic specialists and US politicians

The former seeks to assure the public that policy would follow the science, leading ultimately to a highly effective vaccine. In the meantime, they have proposed ways to slow down if not stop this novel virus community spreading, based on their knowledge of previous pandemic outbreaks.

There is an adage that where politicians sit is where they stand. For their part, politicians around the country were making decisions that depended on where, they sat politically: on the Left or on the Right. President Trump, driven by politics and not science, treated the existence of the virus as a hoax and later as just another flu.

Having been a novel, never before seen virus there was little to go on and medical experts were left to their own devices on a bumpy learning curve about the virus. They soon learned about some of the obvious ways the virus could spread from one person to unsuspecting “others.” While many people believe safe vaccines would be a strategic solution at some time in the future, fierce challenges arose over the suggested use of face masks to slow down community spread.

There has been little concern shown by the President and his political followers for the societal benefits of a nationwide masking program. Medical experts and frontline practitioners disagreed and were increasingly concerned. They insisted that masks could reduce virus spread, and it was later discovered, that masks could protect the wearer from the spread by others.

In fact, the President expected that eventually, on some personally desired and politically inspired time scale, an effective vaccine would be developed by experts backed by various pharmaceutical enterprises to eradicate the infectious disease. An efficacious and safe vaccine would, of course, greatly benefit society in general. Little consideration was given by the President, however, to support tactical contributions to inhibit community spread before a vaccine could be developed created, approved for public use, accepted by the public and distributed.

Pre-vaccine guidelines were proposed without any formal measures of enforcement: wear a face mask, social distancing, wash hands, disinfect various surfaces, etc. Certain venues where people might gather in large numbers – movie theaters, restaurants, gyms and social gatherings (at holidays, births and funerals, hospital or nursing home visits) were to be avoided to reduce exposure to virus-spreading.

A face mask has likely been in use for millenia, as a medical invention for health-related purposes (or more recently for robbing coaches, trains and banks). The medical guidelines for wearing a simple face mask during a virus-related pandemic is a “social invention.” It serves a purpose: protecting others as well as self from spreading airborne particulates when breathing, coughing or sneezing. No one questions people who wear them occupationally when painting, in an operating room, at a demolition site, or fighting a forest fire. And, in many Asian countries masks are worn out of habit to avoid spreading a simple cold to family, friends and strangers.

However, Trump felt that wearing a mask was a sign of something — weakness maybe. As the leader of our country in the midst of a pandemic, he chose early on not to set an example by wearing one. He politicizes mask-wearing, ordering those around him to avoid wearing a mask.

His administration rejected mask-wearing, and his followers followed suit. even though infectious disease experts underscored mask-wearing as the first line of defense in a pandemic to inhibit community spread, As US virus cases continued to rise, Trump doubled-down on mask avoidance as Americans continued to suffer in increasing numbers with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increasing exponentially.

To cover up earlier bad decisions with regard to the pandemic’s onset, the president chose to focus on a Hail Mary pass-like solution — wait for the development of a vaccine rather than backtrack by calling for mask-wearing. Science does not work that way. Scientific findings cannot be created from thin air; breakthroughs cannot be mandated. They occur, when they are discovered. By politicizing mask-wearing as a we-they issue at his rallies, the president drew a ‘line in the sand’ for his supporters not to cross.

To the President and his base, mask-wearers = opponents, including Blue States; non mask-wearers = supporters and Red States. The virus does not follow national politics and, in the interim before the discovery of a vaccine, all Americans have become potential victims of the virus.

We, as a society, need to think about our response to the covid-19 virus in a different way. Not everyone, but enough people and institutions changed their perspectives about the virus and their ways of doing things to such an extent that the widespread wearing of masks was indeed having a positive impact, wherever and whenever it was taken seriously. Even our universities began to change, to get in on this “sea change” taking place for thinking about the future. Now, a few generations of students will have grown up in a pandemic-influenced future.

Wearing a mask during a pandemic is a social invention that can save lives. This reaffirms the belief that there are notions, concepts, ideas and words that alone can change the way we do things and the direction of history. The risks of many “business-as-usual scenarios,” for example, no mask-wearing in the time of Covid-19, have forced us to rethink how we interact with each other. If we stop to think about it, social inventions are often as important as new technologies that scientists and engineers develop. Social inventions lead to new technologies and new technologies, in turn, can generate new social inventions.

Medical experts and politicians must work closer together to end the pandemic, realizing that working separately (as has been the case) would be like clapping with one hand, not very effective if you are trying to make a sound.

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  1. Great insights, Mickey! Thank you.
    I find that as climate change intensifies, and we continue to exploit –and expose– different cryptic habitats, we will find that there are many-many more viruses looming in the dark, waiting to see the light of day. Mask wearing will be –unfortunately– so common in the future. But, will we have leaders that will guide us with science, and will we grow to understand the impact our leaders have in our lives? That’s the question.

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