Masks, Political Symbols, and Public Trust

by Jessica Weinkle, Department of Public and International Affairs, University of North Carolina Wilmington

The incoming Biden Administration will ask the nation to wear masks for 100 days.  According to one article, Biden states, “Just 100 days to mask, not forever. 100 days. And I think we'll see a significant reduction.”

Much scientific literature supports a mask wearing policy, but the masks themselves have become politically symbolic. 

There was great showboating during election campaigning regarding the masks.  Democrats donned a mask in all public appearances making a production out of taking off the mask to speak and putting the mask back on to take their place back on stage.  Republicans went out of their way to snub the relatively common-sense practice in large gatherings.

The Biden Administration’s 100-day request is exemplar of the symbolism.  To my knowledge there is nothing scientifically meaningful about 100 days of mask wearing. But the “First 100 days” of a presidency has much political significance.  In the US, there is a regular accounting of the success and failures of a presidency at the 100-day mark. 

North Carolina Democratic Governor Cooper put a mask mandate into effect back in June.  In recent weeks, the state has seen a rapid increase in COVID like much of the US and other nations.  In North Carolina, the rise in cases is attributed mainly to rural areas, religious gatherings, family gatherings, and a lack of mask wearing in these settings.  So, a recent Executive Order seeks to increase compliance with the mask mandate.

Certainly, a huge factor in a lack of compliance with mask wearing is the extent to which the Trump Administration politicized the measure.  As a resident of a conservative leaning region, wearing a mask feels like a visible signifier of my information sources and general support for our governor and Health secretary. It’s my scarlet letter.  

In a recent trip to the grocery store, I listened to two women in the dairy department gripe about the mask mandate as a scare tactic.  Another woman at the self-checkout wore a mask that read, “Deep State.”  My mask is a festive red, white and blue.

The potential for misinformation and polarization around pandemic response is documented in North Carolina’s archived pandemic plans.

In 2007, a NC Task Force on Ethical Guidelines for an Influenza Pandemic  described the challenges pandemic responses pose to civil liberties and thus, public willingness to comply.  Managing pandemic response would need a very tactful approach towards the public.  Because the Task Force was so adamant about the need for trust in government for a successful pandemic response 13 years ago, it is worth referencing them at length,  

The Task Force recognized the importance of keeping the public informed and engaged as a partner to be successful at every stage of the pandemic. Every attempt should be made to ensure the public is aware of the need for epidemic-related restrictions of individual liberties. Public feedback should be sought and public education should be provided regarding the measures, ideally prior to implementation. Informing the public about the reasoning behind these social distancing measures likely will improve compliance. During a pandemic, public health officials and other state and local officials have an ethical obligation to ensure that the public is provided with timely, accurate health information in order to keep the public informed of the progress of the pandemic and the measures that people can take to protect themselves and their families. Government should disseminate information via the media and trusted community leaders to help ensure that information reaches people at risk. Providing timely and accurate information will help reduce the spread of misinformation and panic.

Recent research suggests much of what the 2007 Task Force wrote about, those governments that have the public trust do better in their pandemic response.  Those governments that do not have the public trust fail quite miserably in pandemic response.

Trust is something that we are currently lacking in government and its ability to protect our personal data. A 2019 Pew study shows that over 80% of Americans trust neither government or business to protect their digital privacy.  Between a polarized lens in viewing the actions of government and a general feeling of distrust in how data is used contact tracing has proven difficult in the US.  

Despite strong encouragement by our state health agencies there is only about 50% compliance with tracing efforts.  Most American’s are skeptical about answering the phone for numbers they don’t recognize often assuming it to be a scam.  According to the US Financial Trade Commission, they are correct in their assumptions. 

A media briefing on COVID by the North Carolina health secretary indicates that the lack of trust is undermining testing efforts, as well. 

The Biden Administration needs to work on building back trust in government not just for effective pandemic response over the next year, but for creating stability in democratic political order.  This requires more than championing Democrats’ political symbols such as masks (and most recently Dr. Fauci). 

Building trust requires addressing the underlying grievances that enable these things (and people) to become so divisive.  This is certainly not easy.  But a first step would be to find a meaningful scientific metric for the length of time Americans should wear a mask rather than the politically potent metric of “100 days.”