Unmasking the Great Unmasking

Masks being produced in Taiwan. Photograph Source: 總統府 – 02.05 總統訪視「台灣康匠製造公司」- CC BY 2.0

Like many places across the US, the small private university where I work is lifting its mask mandate.  Indeed, our state government here in Oregon moved up its originally planned date by two weeks, to March 12.  The decision is contentious, but the reasoning is comprehensible, if distressing:  nationally, lifting mask mandates means accepting “excess” deaths to foster economic growth: killing the poor to enrich capital. On campus, it means acquiescing to the directives of administrators, who, in turn, are following policymakers whose interests and perspectives they share, perhaps appeasing potential donors, and supporting the markets in which the endowment is invested, even though students and faculty and other campus workers will get sick.  (The university is also ending vaccination requirements for visitors to campus.)

To be clear, the virus can be transmitted before symptoms appear, and protection increases when everyone is masked (handy chart here).  I intend to continue wearing an N95 or other high-filtration mask, and I hope that my students, colleagues, and other coworkers will do so as well, since, without fit-testing, even the best mask works better as a trap than as a filter. Despite the lifting of the mandates,  we can still choose to protect each other.

In its updated guidance, the CDC offered a new measure:  rather than “community transmission,” the new metric is “community level.”  This is calculated substantially on the basis of whether hospitals are likely to be overwhelmed, rather than on the numbers of people actually infected or sick.  Hospitalization is a lagging indicator: by the time these numbers rise, many people have already become infected and sick, and the situation will continue to worsen before it improves.

According to the latest available community transmission data, as of this writing, our county is still experiencing “substantial” transmission. Indeed, case numbers in the nation and in our state appear to be higher than when the university’s mask mandate first took effect.  And available figures suggest that the US undercounts cases and deaths from the pandemic.

Moreover, though local case rates are currently falling, a focus on lagging indicators does not help us prepare for the health impacts of new waves or variants.  The  Omicron BA.2 variant “is about 1.5 and 4.2 times as contagious as BA.1 and Delta, respectively. It is also 30% and 17-fold more capable than BA.1 and Delta, respectively, to escape current vaccines.”   Currently, this variant is sharply increasing in New York.

Even with the BA.1 variant currently prevailing,  over 1300 people are dying per day in the USA of COVID19, and over 67,000 people per day are contracting the virus.  While cases occur disproportionately among the unvaccinated, protection from vaccination may wane over time.  While most of those who become sick survive, many of those infected (including many with asymptomatic cases) contract long covid.

Two years ago, 60% of the US population had underlying conditions that the CDC recognized as putting them at greater risk for severe illness, but the list of such underlying conditions has only grown longer since then, and now includes, among other things, neurological and mental conditions such as ADHD and depression, which, we know, increasingly affect our students, not to mention the rest of us.

Further, recent research indicates that even mild Covid is linked to brain damage, and post-covid problems include cardiovascular, kidney, and other health impairments.  These and other ill effects have also had greater impacts in racialized communities.

In light of the dangers of the virus, over one hundred disability organizations have called on the  CDC to Revise Mask Guidance and Protect High Risk Individuals.  On our campus, the student Disability Advocacy Club wrote an open letter to the campus community calling for the preservation of the mandate and pointing out the irony of the end of the mandate having been announced just one day before the Disability Day of Mourning.

Students also took issue with our administrators having included, in their rationale for lifting the mandate, the idea that “the long-term impact of social distancing and mask wearing has caused negative psychological effects for many, including increased anxiety and depression, delays in social and emotional development, isolation, post-traumatic stress symptoms, complicated grief, and anger.”  While this rationale apparently conflates the effects of the pandemic itself with the effects of mitigation measures, the students noted that “Using mental health as an excuse to justify lifting the mask mandate ignores the negative impact it has on the mental health of disabled students and other members of our campus community. For instance, immunocompromised students will experience increased anxiety from potential COVID exposure. If students are made to feel unsafe in the classroom, how can this university justify its commitment to fair and equitable learning?”

Given all this, one might wonder why the metrics have been changed and why the Biden Administration has abandoned a public health approach.  Arguments for a “focused protection” approach can be found in the Great Barrington Declaration, sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research, a Koch Foundation-backed organization.

In an upbeat email telling us that we will not be able to exclude unmasked students from class and we should not glare at the unmasked, our Dean linked to a NYTimes opinion piece which, a colleague pointed out, was authored by a member of the Team at the Albright Stonebridge Group, co-founded by Madeleine Albright, famous for having noted that the death of half a million children in pursuit of US policy goals was “worth it.”  The Dean, in response, pointed out the writer’s credentials and suggested the unfairness of discrediting a scholar because of a tenuous connection to a former Secretary of State’s political position on an entirely different issue.

And, in fairness, Dr. Ashish Jha, like CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, had previously gone on record opposing the Great Barrington Declaration.  But while the current policy is a milder version of “let ‘er rip” than was the Declaration, its logic, like the logic of Albright’s comment about the worthiness of killing Iraqi children,  still depends on the sense that some lives are less grievable than others.

Moreover, like the Declaration, the current CDC policy evidently ignores the epidemiological implication that further spread means further mutation and thus the persistence of the pandemic.  Following the upbeat email came one from upper administrators, sternly affirming that  “our public health partners are confident that the conditions are right to begin aligning our COVID-19 precautions to the emerging endemic nature of the virus and transition from administrative policies to personal choice and responsibility.”  While virologists might object to the idea that our rollercoaster of infection rates resembles endemicity, and humanities scholars protest the illusion of persons as monadic islands, our government policies thus give cover, in standard neoliberal fashion, to a shift from public health and community care to individual burden and blame.   (It’s just in time for spring break, too!)

This all seems to confirm the continuing validity of arguments by anthropologist Martha Lincoln that  “In the cultural  moment  of  COVID-19, allowing existing and emerging disparities in life chances to translate into deaths among vulnerable populations has been openly promoted as a means of securing social and economic stability—as if death functioned like an exotic financial instrument, capable of externalizing risks, extracting new value, and promising irresistible future profit.”

For most of us, these directives come from above—the government, the university administration, the affluent who are least endangered.  As this “guidance” passes down the hierarchy, no doubt many passing the message along are simply thoughtless if not well-intentioned, wishing this were all simply over, or just hoping to keep their jobs.  But the willingness to sacrifice some lives as disposable reveals the shallowness of institutional claims to equity and inclusion.

Masking is a sign of care not only for ourselves but for each other.