We want to start this post off by presenting two very different views on the utility (or otherwise) of the wearing of face masks in the bid to defeat COVID-19.

In the anti-face mask corner, we have this from Architects for Social Housing: The Science and Law of Refusing to Wear Masks: Texts and Arguments in Support of Civil Disobedience – Architects for Social Housing | 11 June 2020.

In the pro-face mask wearing corner, we have this from Freedom News: The surveillance state doesn’t want you to mask up – Freedom News | 14 July 2020.

As a point of information, both of these pieces are from groups we’ve had political associations with in the past.

Regarding the piece from Freedom News, there are a few observations we’d like to make. While we have our reservations about why we’re only being made to wear face masks when the pandemic appears to be rapidly diminishing, we do appreciate the points being made about wearing them as an act of solidarity with and respect for those who are more vulnerable to infection. Solidarity in a crisis such as this is vital. The problem is that because debates about how to deal with the COVID-19 crisis have become so polarised and toxic, even within anarchist and radical movements, solidarity has become a lot harder to maintain.

Where we have to strongly disagree with Freedom News is their characterisation of anti-face mask sentiment as tending to be right wing. Obviously, it’s clear elements of the right have latched onto this issue and would love to own it. Apart from a handful of groups and people of a radical and anarchist persuasion such as Architects for Social Housing and Winter Oak, by and large there’s been little in the way of acknowledgement of people’s genuine concerns about the impact of lockdown in general and of wearing face masks in particular. That’s playing a part in allowing the right to take hold of this issue.

Left and right? Time for a brief aside at this point. We’d like to point out that the debates around lockdown have started to highlight a different political divide between those of us who value collective and individual autonomy on the one hand and those who look to the state to resolve problems, regardless of how authoritarian the measures taken may be. This is what we had to write about this divide during the lockdown: The emerging political divide.

Getting back on track, the debate about wearing face masks has to be seen in the context of concerns about the negative impacts of the lockdown on mental health. Here are just three out of many pieces on the issue we think are worth reading:

Child and adolescent mental health in a post-lockdown world: a ticking time bomb? – University of Nottingham | Vision | Health and Medicine | June 2020.
Much has been said about the trade-off between risk of disease transmission and impact on educational outcomes, and the wider economy. Very little consideration has been given to the voices of the children and adolescents, and to the impacts on their wellbeing and mental health. From the beginning of lockdown many in the research community, and in frontline practice, were concerned about the impact on those with existing mental health problems and those who may be vulnerable to developing them whilst in lockdown (literally anyone).

Emerging evidence on COVID-19’s impact on mental health and health inequalities – The Health Foundation | 18 June 2020.
More than two-thirds of adults in the UK (69%) report feeling somewhat or very worried about the effect COVID-19 is having on their life. The most common issues affecting wellbeing are worry about the future (63%), feeling stressed or anxious (56%) and feeling bored (49%).

UK lockdown causing ‘serious mental illness in first-time patients’ – Denis Campbell | The Guardian | 16 May 2020.
People with no history of mental illness are developing serious psychological problems for the first time as a result of the lockdown, amid growing stresses over isolation, job insecurity, relationship breakdown and bereavement, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has disclosed.

When lockdown first started, like a fair number of other people, we naively thought that it would last for just a month and then we’d be back to some kind of normal. Instead it went on for months and we still face numerous restrictions on what we can and can’t do and how we interact with each other.

Humans are in the main, social beings. Most of us thrive on communicating and interacting with each other, verbally and physically. Lockdown has in varying degrees denied this to a lot of people, condemning them to isolation. If there’s a clear exit point in sight, a fair number of people might be able to cope with this, albeit there would still be many who would suffer. We’re now in a situation where even though lockdown has been eased, it feels there’s no end in sight to the restrictions that are still keeping us apart and denying us many forms of meaningful interaction and contact. That’s taking its toll on people’s mental health. It may be years before we find out just how serious the impact of all of this will be.

As for the issues over face masks, this piece is useful in dealing with the impact on effective non-verbal communication that covering the face has:

Why a Mask is Not Just a Mask – Kathleen M. Pike, PhD | Global Mental Health Programs Columbia University | 17 April 2020.
In some contexts, non-verbal communication accounts for the majority of what we understand in our social exchanges. With our faces half-covered, we lose key non-verbal information, and other information, like raised eyebrows and shoulder shrugs become highly ambiguous without cues from the mouth.

The negative reaction to the demand that we have to start wearing face masks in shops from 24 July onwards really has to be seen in the context of the wider issues of the mental health impacts of lockdown. After months of isolation from friends and family, and feeling cut off from meaningful human interaction, for those suffering from the impact of lockdown, being required to wear a mask in a shop is seen as just one more slap in the face. Being masked up is seen as just one more de-humanising, imposed barrier to us being able to fully interact with each other. From our trawls through social media, we’re not exaggerating when we say that for some people who’ve already suffered mental health issues as a result of lockdown, this requirement is pushing them perilously close to the edge.

All we ask is that in what has swiftly become a very polarised row, is that those such as Freedom News who advocate the use of face masks acknowledge the very real distress lockdown in general and feeling that you’re being forced to wear a mask in particular is causing many people. If that could be done, perhaps the right would not be able to make the traction that some people think they are making on the issue.

Another brief aside… The Freedom News piece implies that the requirement to don a face mask is hampering the police facial recognition technology that’s currently being rolled out. Technology advances in leaps and bounds, frequently not to our advantage but to that of those who presume to rule us. If current police facial recognition technology is being hampered, the indications are that will be a temporary state of affairs: Facial Recognition Is Increasing and Masks Won’t Stop It – Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger | New York Daily News | April 8, 2020.

As we’ve already mentioned, the debate around the increased use of face masks has become very polarised. When a debate goes like this, our instinct is to take a step back and ask what else is going down that we should be paying attention to but are getting distracted from. It’s becoming widely acknowledged that COVID-19 and the lockdown will continue to drastically impact and in many cases, turn our lives upside down. ‘Reset’ is a word used quite frequently to describe what’s going to happen.

Some people have tried to associate the use of the word ‘reset’ with conspiracy theory. The ‘reset’ is happening right now. A significant part of that is the concentration of yet more wealth into even fewer hands. That’s along with increased surveillance and tracking, ostensibly brought in to deal with COVID-19 but which will be deployed to keep us under control. What is the point of arguing about whether this is planned as some would have it or merely the ruling elites taking advantage of a global crisis to further their own interests at our expense? To do that is in our view, dangerous. It’s dangerous because squabbling among ourselves, not anticipating what’s coming and formulating strategies and tactics to deal with it, will leave us open to being completely screwed over.