The very same day the Quebec government finally got its act together and decided to officially mandate masks in indoor public spaces, the anti-mask brigade was out in full force. Even though Quebecers, for the most part, support wearing them and have been compliant with the new rules, Montreal police still received about 100 calls about people refusing to wear them on the first weekend, according to TVA journalist Yves Poirier.
A sparse but noisy crowd gathered outside Berri metro this past Saturday, with one protester quoted in La Presse as saying, “It’s really excessive to ask someone to deprive themselves of oxygen while we should be free.”
What’s excessive are the 72-hour work shifts that nurses, orderlies and doctors have been suffering through these past few months (all while wearing masks, gloves and hospital gowns) and not the mere inconvenience of a mask that, while not fun to wear during summer, is certainly not capable of depriving me or my brain of much-needed oxygen.
I didn’t need to wait until the government decided to officially mandate masks to wear one while shopping or taking public transit. Not because I’m virtuous or better than everyone else, and certainly not because I’m easily controlled or gullible, like some folks like to claim, but because I’m smart enough to know what I’m not smart about.
Call me a sheep if you want to, Conspiracy-Theory Claude, Never-Take-My-Freedom Frank and I-Can’t-Breathe-In-A-Mask Martha, but I’m going to go ahead and trust scientists and immunologists who’ve spent the better part of their lives studying what most of us have only recently Googled. People claiming that masks are a tool to foster compliance, muzzle their freedoms or brainwash the public have no scientific leg to stand on. It’s just nonsense. Posting a meme on Facebook doesn’t make you a medical expert any more than me posting a recipe will make me a highly praised chef. Heck, I won’t even make the recipe! I just post them as quaint parallel versions of what my domestic life could be if I didn’t spend so much time reading and addicted to Netflix series.
I can’t comprehend why it’s such a divisive public health measure, particularly in countries like the U.S. which has been ravaged by COVID-19. Don’t the MAGA folks want to live, too, or is the myth of American exceptionalism betraying these people in the worst possible way?
While we admittedly learn more about this new virus every day, a growing amount of research supports what experts have maintained all along: masks work. A quick glance at how much better Asian countries (where masks are routine and non-controversial) fared in terms of cases and mortality rates should open our eyes to the obvious.
Like handwashing, the wearing of masks is an easy and affordable way to drastically reduce the odds of getting or transmitting the potentially deadly virus to people who are at higher risk of complications. Yet, every day, I’m watching Americans get into violent altercations in front of entrances to Walmart, Whole Foods or Bed Bath and Beyond for refusing to wear a mask on their way to go buy kale or scented candles. Just wear the damn mask, Karen!
Of course, distrust of science and government and resistance to mandatory health measures are nothing new. In 1919, during the Spanish Flu that killed thousands, the Anti-Mask League of San Francisco was formed to protest the obligation to wear masks during the influenza pandemic. What they felt they were accomplishing I don’t know, but here we are 100 years later making the exact same embarrassing moves.
A facepalm for Canada, too
And while Canadians like to make fun of Americans resisting masks and proclaiming their right to freely contaminate others, we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to our own badly behaving “masks are tyranny” dummies right here at home. Anti-mask rallies have been held across the country, from Saskatchewan and Calgary, to La Beauce and Montreal.
There’s even a “Hugs Over Masks” group that has been making fake face mask medical exemption cards and labels itself a “community of independent, non-partisan and concerned individuals […] working together in pursuit of restoring our liberties, democracy and way of life.” It’s based in Ottawa, but judging by that description, you’d think they were tweeting out of a prison camp somewhere in Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea.
Quebec’s mandatory mask law was barely in effect last Saturday when videos of “freedom fighters” losing their shit over being denied service and being told to leave the premises started finding their way onto social media.
In one incident, at a Montreal Tim Hortons café, police officers were called to remove a mask-less client who adamantly refused to leave the premises because, apparently, wearing a mask impedes your ability to order sub-standard coffee and mediocre donuts. Police being police, they overreacted and wrestled him to the ground and even pepper-sprayed him, while his partner was filming the entire episode for our viewing pleasure.
You don’t need to be a seasoned sleuth to glean the police were probably set up. A quick look at the videographer’s now-private Facebook page strongly hints (okay, shouts) that she’s an anti-mask defender, referring to the new law as a “health dictatorship” and brandishing a “Quand Finira Cette Mascarade?” logo as her main picture. Let’s just say I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire Timmy’s altercation wasn’t a staged straight-to-YouTube event to further their narrative.
What about the frontline service people?
The people I feel most sorry for right now are the poor overworked and often-underpaid service employees and small business owners working in close contact with an increasingly frazzled and rude public in the middle of a pandemic. Since, here in Quebec, the onus is on business owners to ensure that clients wear masks or they risk fines ranging anywhere between $400 to $6,000, I foresee more police officers being called to more establishments every time the anti-mask caravan rolls into town.
Honestly, it takes a special brand of selfish to harass minimum-wage workers at a supermarket cash or a waiter at a restaurant, decked out in a full-face visor during a summer that’s consistently been nothing but 30C heat waves, because you feel like a piece of tissue over your mouth is somehow violating your freedom and sense of fun.
I’m pretty sure a ventilator tube shoved down your throat would feel even more invasive than a mask, but, of course, the people defending their God-given right to be careless, self-absorbed humans with vitriol-like resistance are usually also the ones who think a global pandemic that’s killed upwards of 610,000 people worldwide is nothing more than a hoax perpetuated by the vaccine industry or part of some elaborate political machinations to distract us from something bigger (*insert your favourite conspiracy theory here*).
Just do the right thing
Add to all this toxic masculinity that has more men resistant to wearing them, American exceptionalism that has many in the U.S. thinking COVID-19 is over just because they’re tired of it, some political leaders more interested in relaunching the economy than ensuring lives are saved, and this vaccine can’t come fast enough for me. We are living in incredibly trying times.
Watching grown-ass adults have full-blown meltdowns argue that their rights are somehow being violated because they’re being mandated to wear a mask for a few minutes or a few hours in order to protect the most vulnerable among us makes me despair for humanity. I’ve even seen some anti-mask folks on Twitter urging people not to shop at stores requiring masks. My friends, those are the ONLY places you should be shopping at!
Even on the off chance that we’re slightly overestimating the effectiveness of a mask to fully protect us, what is so hard about doing the decent and kind thing? What if we acted like members of a community that care about one another and want to protect each other in the middle of a deadly virus that has forced people to watch their loved ones suffer and many to die all alone? I mean, this isn’t our first pandemic rodeo! Can’t we, as humans, learn a little something from our past for once?
“The most depressing part about being a historian who studies plague (among other things) during a pandemic is watching people react to deadly disease outbreaks almost exactly the same way 16th and 17th century Europeans did,” tweeted British historian of science, Jessica Otis.
I feel her frustration. It’s hard watching people resist doing the right thing. Especially when it’s so damn easy. ■
Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.