Skip to main content

Paul Gooch, a philosopher, is president emeritus of Victoria University in the University of Toronto.

Open this photo in gallery:

Customers wear face masks as they line up to enter a Costco Wholesale store on April 16, 2020 in Wheaton, Md.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There has never been a time when so many of the world’s peoples are masking their faces. And all for one cause, but many reasons.

The cause, of course, is COVID-19. Medical face masks are crucial in containing the spread of the virus. But the reasons for people to wear non-medical masks? That depends on the meaning of the masks.

Masks of many sorts have been around for a long time. We’re accustomed to thinking of them as hiding something – usually somebody’s identity. Think of those gangsters with nylon stockings over their heads, or even black-masked good guys such as the Lone Ranger. Then there’s the centuries-old custom of masked balls, and masquerades in which participants cover up their identities to present themselves as someone else.

But masks create identities as well as hiding them. The theatre tradition of performance in masks is ancient, as are mask rituals. Actors in ancient Greek theatre wore masks to signify different characters. The Latin term persona refers to a role or character played by an actor, created by a mask. Japanese Noh theatre has used masks in this way for seven centuries. Indigenous cultures have long employed masks in many rituals. The face mask is nothing new.

What is new are masks as related to our current understanding of the transmission of diseases – in the case of COVID-19 by the virus in droplets or on surface contact. The science gives us clear measures for protection against the disease: staying at home, maintaining physical distance of two metres from others, frequent handwashing. This is the consistent message in Canada and across the world. These are not “recommendations” or nice ideas. This is morally required behaviour. Till recently, personal non-medical face masks have not been on the list.

Medical face masks are the exception: They are required, not recommended, for health practitioners. The reason is clear: the science. These masks are an essential form of personal protective equipment, though not sufficient by themselves. Where governments have failed to store or source adequate supplies they are scrambling to remedy that, even when it takes cross-border diplomacy.

But personal non-medical face masks? In spite of headlines that suggest our public health officials are doing a volte-face on this issue, that’s not quite the case. Read the bulletins carefully: The professionals continue to do their job – a job that requires the best science, but not just that. It requires an understanding of human behaviour.

And human beings are motivated by more than scientific evidence, however reliable. We’re complicated creatures, and the reasons for wearing masks go well past – and sometimes around – that evidence.

For most of us, direct experience of the world is rather limited these days. Seen from windows or in the safe-distancing lines outside, people are wearing face masks of different types, often homemade. Sometimes the mask doesn’t cover the nose. Or it’s just a scarf tied loosely over the mouth. The eyes are exposed. Often the wearer is alone. Masks aren’t worn properly, or they are worn unnecessarily in wide-open spaces.

All this behaviour with non-medical masks doesn’t turn out to be required by the best evidence available. True, that knowledge may not be firmly planted in many people. But even having it doesn’t seem to make the difference that it should. There are a couple of other, entirely human, reasons for masks.

The non-medical face mask belongs to its other cousins, related to our social identities. The medical mask, though, is more potent: like its recent ancestor, the gas mask, it is supposed to protect and preserve not just our identities, but our very existence. That’s absolutely true for our health professionals – the reason generated and supported by the evidence.

For the rest of us with non-medical masks and no symptoms, there are other reasons. The first is that it makes us feel better. The enemy is unseen and invisible, and we find ourselves needing to do something besides anxiously waiting for its appearance. The mask is a talisman.

Anxiety aside, there is another, more compelling, reason for wearing a personal non-medical mask: identifying with others. An important value is solidarity in these times. The virus likes those who promote individualist ideas of personal freedom. But COVID-19 has made the world more connected than ever. Wearing a mask is a signal that you understand that we’re all in this together. If you want yet another reason, related to self-presentation rather than self-preservation, you can express your personality through the fabric you use to make your mask.

If the evidence were that wearing personal, non-medical masks had a demonstrable effect on the transmission of COVID-19, then our public health authorities would have a duty to say so. They would be required, morally, to do more than make this a matter of personal choice. They have not done that. They point out that, in effect, wearing a mask is a lot like coughing into your elbow. It’s no substitute for those straightforward measures we all must take. But they recognize that we need symbols of reassurance and solidarity. Hence, personal choice.

One day the masks will come off. And more: Our interactions will not be masked by those virtual exchanges we’re forced to make do with. Our screen faces are their own kinds of mask. However long it takes, we’ll one day see face to face. But only if we understand why relying only on non-medical masks is not enough to save us for that day.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe