Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, millions, if not billions, of people around the world have got into the routine of wearing face masks when leaving their homes.
Masks were almost immediately used by most of the world’s population to try to protect ourselves and those around us from the virus. Although this raised a lot of arguments, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was cautious before publishing recommendations over their use. They argued that there was not enough evidence that proved that they worked in the prevention of spreading viruses. But at the beginning of the summer, after months of research, they published a recommendation that all people who were able to wear one, should wear masks as a way to limit the spread of the virus.
Even though several countries around Eastern Asia had already been using masks to limit the spread of diseases for years before the Covid-19 pandemic, the WHO did not think there was enough scientific evidence available that proved their efficiency. This is why it took until June for them to give recommendations for people to use them. Although they do not do much to protect the wearer, they do prevent the wearer from spreading the virus when around other people. The wearer should still practice social distancing when wearing the mask to minimise the spread of the virus as much as possible.
This led to most countries creating laws that have made wearing masks mandatory in public settings. In the U.S. and several countries around Europe, this has even resulted in several protests.
The rise of the anti-mask movement
Even though most doctors and scientists now agree that face masks do prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus, a lot of politicians and citizens do remain sceptical whether or not this is true.
In the United States, it seems that the anti-mask movement mostly consists of right-wing Republicans who argue that masks are just a way for the left to control people.
In a Vox article, several anti-maskers revealed why they refused to wear masks. One of the interviewees revealed that the main reason why she chose to not wear a mask was political.
“It’s a violation of my freedom, I think, and then also I just don’t think they work,” she said. “A lot of stuff says it does, but then some doesn’t.”
Vox’s article continues to reveal the reasons why people who are anti-maskers do not want to wear them. Most of the reasons ranged from finding masks annoying to wear or not believing that they work. A lot of people also revealed that they had gone down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories regarding masks and either, Big Pharma, YouTube and Bill Gates.
Although the majority of anti-maskers saw themselves as apolitical, a considerable proportion also said they ‘‘leaned right’’ towards the Republican party on the political spectrum.
NBC News conducted a similar reportage, telling the history of the anti-mask movement. They came to a similar conclusion as Vox, that people were against masks simply because they did not want the government to tell them what to do.
‘‘I’m an American, and I believe I have the right to do what I want,’’ one man said in the video.
As a response, Assistant Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, J. Alexander Navarro, used the history of previous pandemics to argue why people should use face masks in the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘‘We need to get past that rugged American individualism in this pandemic because we’re all in this together. It’s not just about protecting yourself. It’s about protecting all of society,’’ Navarro told NBC News.
Anti-mask protests in Europe
Similar movements also exist around Europe. An example of this is the protest that occurred in Madrid in August 2020. This was as a response to the strict laws regarding facemasks that was expanded from public transport to the whole country two days prior. During a video showing clips from the protest, published alongside a BBC article, a red flag with the words ‘‘TRUMP 2020’’ can be seen being carried by one of the protestors. This raises the idea that these protesters may also be part of right-wing political parties.
A similar protest was held in Berlin a couple weeks later, on 29 August. During this protest, approximately 18,000 people gathered by the iconic Brandenburg Gate, which forced the local police to step in as people did not respect the social distancing measures.
France24 reported how the protesters were waving German flags while shouting ‘‘Merkel must go’’. A chant that is often used by Germany’s far-right party: Alternative for Germany (AfD), against Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany. This does not necessarily mean that all participants were followers of AfD.
“I’m not an extreme right-wing sympathiser, I’m here to defend our fundamental freedoms,” Stefan, a 43-year-old Berlin resident, told France24.
22-year-old student Christina agreed with Stefan and said: “We’re here to say: we have to be careful! Coronavirus crisis or not, we must defend our freedoms.”
These are not the only protests that have occurred outside of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people have been protesting in cities all over Europe and the U.K., refusing to let the government tell them what to do.
How is Sweden different?
Ever since the beginning of the pandemic, the goal, according to Swedish epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, was for Sweden to gain herd immunity from the virus. Because of this, national restrictions have not been as restrictive as other countries around the world. There have been no nation-wide lockdowns, nor have there been any rules for the usage of facemasks.
The reason for this decision, according to Tegnell, has not only been because of the ‘‘lack of evidence’’ in whether or not they work but also because he did not think countries who had put in laws for mandatory use of facemasks had fewer cases of Covid 19 than what they would have had without it.
In August 2020, just 10 days before the Berlin protest, the Swedish right-wing party, the Sweden-democrats (SD) were the only party in the Swedish government arguing for the mandatory use of facemasks in Sweden. They told Sveriges Television (SVT) that they wanted the government and the country to follow WHO’s recommendations and give the Swedish citizens and residents guidelines to follow.
What makes this interesting is the fact that SD are usually seen as being far-right conservatives and the most extreme party in the Swedish government. But this does make sense, seeing as one of their leading political questions is that they want to increase government-lead surveillance services. But they only one out of a few parties with these views. Even though all parties agreed they wanted better security around the country, only a few thought surveillance cameras were the right way to do this.
SD was the only party who voted for the national recommendation of facemasks. Meanwhile, all other parties in the social-democratic government told SVT that they wanted more scientific evidence of the effectiveness of face masks in the preventions of viruses and have refused to comply with WHO’s recommendations. These parties, who are a mix of Sweden’s right-and left wing, argue that the use of face masks might make people think they are exempt from social distancing, which still should be the main practice in reducing the spread of the virus.
This has led to several protests in cities around Sweden, consisting of people wanting more concreate laws in preventing the spread of the virus. Instead of right-wing politicians like in most other countries, the protestors mostly consisted of left-wing people who believed that the state was not doing enough to protect its citizens.
In January 2021, the government put into place a new law that instructed all passengers using public transport during rush hours to use facemasks if they were over the age of 15. But even several weeks after the law was put into practice, only about a fourth of passengers used facemasks when travelling, according to Swedish newspaper DN. Yet, nothing is being done to encourage more people to use them.
Although there still aren’t clear laws that dictate if and when to use facemasks in Sweden, it is clear that the question now is a lot more political than what it started. No matter what people might choose to do, it is still important to listen to the doctors and experts to minimize the spread of the virus and end the Covid-19 pandemic. If not, we’re at a risk to lose even more people to this virus than what we’ve already lost in the past year. And if that means wearing masks to just save a single life, it will definitely be something to consider in order to get our lives back and protect those around us.