An Urban's Rural View

What Masks Mean Now

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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When COVID-19 hit a year ago homo sapiens divided into two subspecies, and until recently it was easy to tell them apart. Just as bill color enables a birdwatcher to distinguish a Great Egret (yellow bill) from a Snowy Egret (black bill), there was a field mark that differentiated the fearful from the fearless: the mask.

In our politically polarized times the mask, or lack of one, also looked at times like a political field mark, a sort of wearable bumper sticker. In reality, there were plenty of masked conservatives and unmasked liberals. For many, if not most, masking was about personal risk assessment. Politics aside, you could safely locate the masked on the fearful side of the spectrum and the unmasked on the fearless side.

In the wake of the recent guidance from the CDC that the vaccinated need not wear masks, that's no longer the case.

If you see someone wearing a mask, she could be one of the fearful, but she could also be unvaccinated. If you see someone without a mask, he could be one of the fearless or he could be vaccinated.

A New Yorker cartoon captured the dilemma. It showed two unmasked young men, one of whom is telling an unmasked young woman: "One of us always tells the truth; the other always lies. You can ask us each one question. How do you figure out if we're anti-maskers or vaccinated?" (https://www.newyorker.com/…)

At the extreme ends of the spectrum, positive identifications are still possible. Some state and local governments and some businesses continue to require masks, and some people will continue to scream and make a fuss when they're asked to obey the requirement. Whatever else their vociferousness says about them, it classifies them among the fearless.

Some of the fearful are equally easy to spot. At the Washington, D.C., pool where I swim laps, I recently observed a woman wearing a mask while walking her lane. Later, stepping into the shower beside the pool, she continued to wear her mask.

I admit, my first reaction was she was carrying fearfulness a bit far. I wondered if she realized that when a surgical mask like the one she was wearing gets wet, it no longer protects.

I had to remind myself that I don't know her. Maybe she's not vaccinated. Maybe she's one of those unfortunates with compromised immune systems for whom vaccines provide no protection. Maybe the mask just makes her feel safe, the way Linus in the Peanuts comic strip felt safe with his security blanket.

Face it, none of us are perfectly rational when it comes to risk assessment. There's plenty of good social science to demonstrate this, starting with the pathbreaking work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for which Kahneman won the Nobel Prize (Tversky had died before it was awarded). (https://www.newyorker.com/…)

We flunk risk assessment for many reasons. We lack accurate information on the likelihood of bad things happening, we put too much weight on anecdotes about people we know, we favor evidence that confirms our biases. And that's just for starters. Some of these risk-assessment mistakes make people too optimistic, some too pessimistic. (https://www.psychologytoday.com/…)( https://www.sjsu.edu/…)(https://www.nytimes.com/…)

There's a lesson in this. Since none of us are entirely rational in our assessments of risk, we should be tolerant when others seem to be assessing risk irrationally. We may think she's being absurdly cautious wearing her mask in the shower, but she's not doing anyone else any harm.

(The fellow screaming at the store employee for asking him to wear a mask is another matter. We can respect his fearlessness in the face of COVID-19 while disapproving of his mistreatment of innocent store clerks.)

In the end, though, only those at the extreme ends of the spectrum will be easy to identify. For the most part we can no longer distinguish the fearful from the fearless, the vaccinated from the unvaccinated.

The pandemic has reached a new phase, in the U.S. at least. Enough of us have either been vaccinated or had COVID-19 that the risks to society have declined. Restrictions have been lifted in many places and will be lifted in others soon.

Individuals, however, will continue to make their own risk assessments. There won't be any field marks, so we won't know what a mask or lack of one means. It's time, then, for everyone on both sides to stop worrying about it.

Masks should never have been about politics. With all the good news on the COVID-19 front, there's more reason than ever to depoliticize them. Let's hope the light at the end of the tunnel brings the fearful and the fearless back together.

Urban Lehner can be reached at urbanize@gmail.com

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