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A Mask Off Moment for the Left


Sun’s out, mask’s out.

The default position for a vocal portion of the liberal-left for two years running is that masking as a public health policy is an unambiguous good and taking yours off is a sign that you’re selfish at best, at worst, a murderer.

It’s a problem with plotting every single issue and policy on an imaginary graph that reads “Left” or “Right.” Deciding that whatever Republicans think is terrible and that partisan Democrats are crouching in the safe middle and so good leftists should stubbornly stand on the opposite pole of Tucker Carlson or Donald Trump is a braindead philosophy that leads to bad political outcomes.

Consider that some among the Very Online Left are treating a visit to Unmasked Country in the South like it’s an alien planet. Or they’re dismissing any pushback against mask mandates as part of a right-wing conspiracy. A report published by Lever News, David Sirota’s news outlet, describes anti-mask mandates efforts as a critical part of a Koch Brothers conspiracy to force kids to risk their health going to school and brainwash them.

“I really feel like we’re on the precipice of a changed nation, and not in a good way,” says a Florida school board candidate in a quote that the article closes with. “Everything we’ve worked for as a country to get to where we are right now for the last 70-ish years, we’re literally going to lose it.”

That bombastic claim sounds relatively mild compared to the World Socialist Website’s International May Day rally in which writer Evan Blake warns that the ruling class’s COVID-19 response—which includes an anti-masking reaction—was designed as a warm-up to Armageddon. “The brutality of the pandemic has psychologically prepared them to carry out a war that could lead to the very extermination of mankind,” he said.

What America and the rest of the world need, argues Blake, is to become China.

“The effectiveness of China’s Zero-COVID policy is empirical proof that elimination remains the only viable strategy to stop the pandemic,” said Blake. The failure of everyone else to emulate China means that capitalist regimes are simply mass murdering the working classes.

Never mind that the scientific evidence for measures such as mask mandates for every human on the planet at this stage of the pandemic is spotty. Or that China’s policy is looking increasingly unhinged.

It all reminds me of a joke. Bill Gates, Xi Jinping, and a socialist walk into a bar. They immediately close down the bar, isolate the bartenders in quarantine for a month, and then pull their masks down briefly to sip a beer. What the tech billionaire, Chinese leader, and a vocal portion of the liberal-left have in common is a belief in a COVID elimination theory as the best approach to pandemic management.

After all, we have to “follow the science” down every meandering path, even if it leads us to hell.

Mask On, Mask Off

The ever-evolving mask mandates of the last two years have sometimes seemed like a miserable game of hokey-pokey where we’re constantly following changing orders.

Back in early 2020, Americans were told not to mask, to save them for healthcare workers (“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” tweeted U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams). That advice changed in early April when the COVID czars told everyone over the age of two to strap on cloth masks, bandanas, and even surgical masks whenever we left our homes to block viral particles, inside or outside. That July, Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the CDC, said the U.S. could get the pandemic under control in one or two months if every American wore a mask.

In January of last year, after Joe Biden became president, he signed a flurry of executive orders that required Americans to mask up on planes, trains, public transportation, and federal lands and buildings. Once vaccines—the most effective protection against the ravages of COVID-19—became more widely accessible, the CDC began to relax mask requirements in May 2021. Since then, the ebb and flow of Delta, Omicron, and other subvariants fueling increases in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, have led to the rise and fall of other mask mandates.

With summer coming and cases of the new Omicron strain, the BA.2 subvariant, on the rise in the U.S., the cries for mask mandates are getting louder. Here comes a new wave of smug pro-mask McSweeney’s“humor” and urban liberals putting back on their “Put on your fucking mask” T-shirts while muting their hot girl or feral girl summers. Grab your Flaming Hot Cheetos and renew your Netflix account; it’s time to revert back to Goblin mode!

But this time, it’s not just Republicans who aren’t on board. Mask mandates in 2022 are so unpopular that they even make Joe Biden’s poll numbers look good. According to an Axios/Ipsos poll conducted last month, just 6% of Americans want to increase mask and vaccine mandates, and 12% say that we should “mostly keep” coronavirus precautions in place. Meanwhile, 76% said America should either get back to “life as usual” or move towards that goal.

That makes sense. According to new data from the CDC, nearly 60% of adults and three-quarters of children have antibodies indicating that they’ve been infected with Covid-19.

Omicron and its subvariants are milder but incredibly easy to catch. It’s so contagious that mask-wearing—whose effectiveness was always either weak or unclear—is so clearly hygiene theater that even the Democratic Party, once the party of COVID safety, is increasingly backing away from them.

In early April, the liberal bastion of Philadelphia tried a mask mandate revival, and it only lasted three days. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, running for Senate from the Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, said it was time to “move past Covid,” adding that he did not “agree with the imposition of the Philadelphia mask mandate” during a recent Democratic primary debate.

You’d think that the contemporary Left would agree and focus on Medicare-for-All, expanding our health care infrastructure, and improving the material conditions for working-class families who overwhelmingly bore the brunt of the pandemic.

Instead, parts of the Left overstate the dangers of COVID and argue that because the United States and much of the West handled the pandemic poorly, what we really need to save ourselves is China-style technocratic authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, it’s a mask-off moment.