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If the pandemic has revealed angels among us, it has also offered glimpses of humanity we’d rather not exist.

Among all of the intrusions into our lives for which COVID-19 is responsible, none seems more divisive and angst-inducing than the wearing of masks. The thought of putting a piece of cloth over one’s face has the ability to turn some humans into the vilest form of themselves.

Incidents of mask rage seem to be increasing in frequency, as governments at all levels make the wearing of face coverings mandatory, and as businesses get tougher about creating environments that are safe not just for their customers, but staff, too.

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Sadly, it’s also become more common to see signs inside these establishments warning patrons that abuse of staff over COVID-19-related protocols will not be tolerated.

Stories of employees at stores and restaurants being screamed and sworn at (or worse) are numerous. Global News recently reported that customers at a Kamloops restaurant got so upset over the fact they weren’t allowed to push their tables together (because of public-health rules prohibiting it), they allegedly threw their food on the floor and assaulted the owner.

The RCMP is investigating.

There have been multiple incidents in this country related to the wearing of masks, the most high-profile of which occurred in mid-July when police were called to a grocery store in Minden, Ont., after reports a man had assaulted an employee for being asked to put on a mask before entering. The 73-year-old alleged assailant left for his home, where he was eventually tracked down by police and shot dead after a confrontation with the attending officers.

There have been protests in several Canadian cities staged by those who insist that mask-wearing edicts are an infringement on their rights and freedoms. Their health, and the health of those around them, seem to be a secondary concern, if one at all.

The United States, not surprisingly, has become a hotbed for dissent, not to mention outright hostility and violence, related to the issue.

There was a report earlier this week of an incident at a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan. Two men in their 30s entered the premises and refused to don masks, per store policy. Asked by staff to comply, the pair began to punch the employees and beat them with a wooden paddle. One was cut so badly he had to be taken to hospital. “Don’t make me get my gun,” one of the perpetrators yelled, according to New York police. In all, seven staff members and three managers were assaulted.

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Mask rage is happening around the world.

One particularly brutal incident happened in France. A bus driver in the town of Bayonne was assaulted by a group of men after he told them they couldn’t ride without masks, which are compulsory on transit. Left brain-dead after the attack, the driver died a week later.

There is no easy explanation for behaviour this despicable. Some of it is simply human nature, as horrible as that is to accept. There are repulsive, appalling people in our midst who will do unspeakable things. There is a cohort, most often men, who don’t like being told what to do and will act out, often in violent ways.

It should be said that the World Health Organization and public-health officials everywhere likely didn’t help matters with confusing messaging on the efficacy of wearing masks as the pandemic began. It gave cover to the anti-maskers.

No doubt, there is a strong psychological element to this phenomenon. COVID-19 has imposed seldom-seen sanctions on people. For many, it is strangely discomforting. Masks can, for some people, cause a suffocating feeling, which in turn can create an almost fight-or-flight reaction.

None of this, of course, rationalizes the actions of those who respond with violence to a request to put on a mask. It will never be acceptable to behave in this way.

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My concern is that these incidents will become more commonplace as mask-wearing is increasingly imposed upon us. And it will be low-paid retail workers who will continue to bear the brunt of the rage we have witnessed, and that which is yet to come.

The only hope may be peer pressure. If more of us are seen wearing a mask, it will increasingly isolate those who don’t. It may not stop every anti-masker from behaving atrociously, but it could convince some that their anger and paranoia are misplaced.

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