DANIEL VAUGHAN: Don’t blame the public for mask skepticism

It’s common to hear people mock or chastise those walking around without a mask these days. And I get it. It’s essential to wear a mask; where I live, we’re under a mandatory mask order. But I don’t blame individuals for having mask skepticism, or skepticism of anything coronavirus-related. Elites’ panic created COVID skepticism.

Many of the same people shaming others on social media for not wearing masks were, only a few weeks ago, shaming people for wearing masks. We live in a world with a surplus of masks now, but that wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the pandemic, before the CDC, WHO, and others even called it a pandemic, masks were being bought up rapidly across the world.

In early March, while we were still learning about the virus, the CDC was downplaying the importance of masks. In an interview with TheStreet earlier this month, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained why:

Well, the reason for that is that we were concerned the public health community, and many people were saying this, were concerned that it was at a time when personal protective equipment, including the N-95 masks and the surgical masks, were in very short supply.

And it’s true. Masks were in short supply. Many Americans got together to donate N-95 masks to local hospitals other health care providers. And it wasn’t hard to find people on social media shaming others for wearing a mask.

Zeynep Tufekci warned in a mid-March New York Times op-ed that the shifting narrative on masks would breed distrust in government and public health institutions. But it wasn’t just the government lying that has impacted public skepticism on all things related to the coronavirus. The primary method for pushing out information has been the press.

Instead of focusing on getting accurate information out on the coronavirus, the national press has politicized it every step of the way. While we were still reading reports out of China about a new virus sweeping through, President Donald Trump instituted at the end of January a travel ban against China, and the press quickly trotted out experts to pan the move.

At the time, Vox and many media outlets were calling the novel coronavirus no different than the common flu. “Experts” were confidently telling news outlets like Politico that the travel ban would backfire. And outlets like CNN, which started out calling the disease the “Wuhan flu,” turned around later and denounced anyone who used the same term.

The public had two options for information. The first was the government, whose lies about mask-wearing were barely recognized. And the second was a media all too willing to throw out any objectivity to go after Trump. Instead of informing the public, whatever policies the Trump administration was pushing to combat the virus were met with negativity by the media.

We’re not done, though. The latest row in this response is over the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd. Instead of counseling caution regarding COVID-19, the media has thrown caution to the wind. Writing for The Guardian, Thomas Chatterton Williams, a columnist on the center-left, noted this abrupt change:

This feels like gaslighting. Less than two weeks ago, the enlightened position in both Europe and America was to exercise nothing less than extreme caution. Many of us went much further, taking to social media to castigate others for insufficient social distancing or neglecting to wear masks or daring to believe they could maintain some semblance of a normal life during coronavirus. At the end of April, when the state of Georgia moved to end its lockdown, the Atlantic ran an article with the headline “Georgia’s Experiment in Human Sacrifice.” Two weeks ago we shamed people for being in the street; today we shame them for not being in the street.

And now we’re back to where I started this column: people mocking others for not wearing a mask. The public shouldn’t be blamed for that skepticism. Skepticism is warranted now, more than ever. 

We’re in the middle of a pandemic. The primary sources of information have gotten caught either lying or peddling whatever narrative most benefits them on a given day. The public is skeptical because no elite group has taken responsibility and spoken with authority on this topic.

For a while, everyone trusted the White House’s pandemic response team. But with those daily press conferences mothballed, and stories coming out now that they were less than truthful at times, all the public has is skepticism. It’s like reading daily news articles telling you one day that coffee will kill you and the next that coffee is the greatest thing for your health. 

Eventually, everyone tunes out what the so-called experts say and go with what they believe is correct. As we enter a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, that’s a bad place for everyone.

Still, thanks to the government and media, it’s all we have at the moment. But that’s not the public’s fault — it’s the elites who created a wall of distrust.