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5 Jul 2020 13:33
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  •   Home > News > International

    Wearing a mask in the United States is political, but Republicans are speaking out as coronavirus cases grow

    Mike Pence is the latest US Republican to say wearing a mask is a "good idea" but we're still yet to see President Donald Trump wear one. Why are masks so divisive?

    Wearing a mask or face covering in the US has become about more than just slowing the spread of COVID-19 — some experts say it's a political statement, signalling another layer in the deep divisions within America.

    The country's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advise people to wear face coverings when social distancing is not an option, but despite this US President Donald Trump has yet to be photographed in public wearing one.

    While Republicans have been more associated with avoiding masks, this week US Vice-President Mike Pence became the latest high-profile member of the party to say wearing one was a "good idea".

    With cases surging and hitting some parts of the country for the first time, the debate surrounding masks could intensify in the coming weeks.

    COVID-19 has killed more than 127,000 people in the US — more than double the total in the next highest country, Brazil — and infected nearly 2.7 million people, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.

    We look into why wearing a mask has become a political topic, whether the division is simply along partisan lines, and what might happen as cases soar across a nation already struggling to cope with the outbreak.

    US missing nationally led COVID-19 response

    The US has no universal healthcare program, and while the Trump administration has said it will support states and localities in fighting the virus, it has also left them to manage their own response to the pandemic.

    May Chu, a clinical professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, told the ABC more coordinated and synchronised messaging from the White House would encourage people to wear masks.

    "This is a political problem, more so in the US than other countries, because we send the public mixed messages and examples of wearing or not wearing masks," Dr Chu said.

    "For folks not wanting to wear face masks, this is an easy out, especially if their own political leaning is with the top leadership."

    An Axios-Ipsos coronavirus poll published last week found 65 per cent of Democrats wore masks, compared to 35 per cent of Republicans.

    Dr Chu said wearing masks had been broadly viewed as a political identifier across the country and the culture surrounding it was "conflated with political implications".

    Texas, Florida and Arizona have emerged as the country's latest coronavirus epicentres, and state and local responses have largely been formed along partisan lines.

    The Governor of California and mayors of large cities such as Montgomery, Phoenix and Tucson, who are all Democrats, have reacted to growing cases by issuing orders for masks to be worn in public, while Republican governors in Florida, Nebraska and Texas have refused to make their statewide use mandatory.

    "We want to make sure that individual liberty is not infringed upon by government and hence government cannot require individuals to wear a mask," Texas Governor Greg Abbott told a local television station, despite his state experiencing record new daily cases.

    Arizona's Republican Governor also initially refused to mandate the use of masks before he eventually backtracked in response to surging numbers.

    Public health versus personal liberty

    To many in the US, masks represent trust in scientific advice being for the greater good of a community.

    But for others, an order to wear masks is government overreach and a violation of individual rights.

    Peter Chin-Hong, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco told the ABC: "The role and symbolism of the President not wearing a mask has become a powerful metaphor in itself."

    He said wearing a mask had become a symbol for political affiliation in the US.

    "This is solidified and even fuelled by leaders of both main political parties in the US wearing masks [Democrats] or defiantly not [Republicans]," he told ABC News.

    "At some point, public health and science became more polarised as some members of the public wished for a more rapid return to normalcy.

    "Taking additional precautions instead of a rapid reopening became viewed as an assault on personal liberty, and masks became a symbol of the loss of freedom, particularly given the economic hardship that was increasingly felt the longer lockdown continued."

    Dr Chin-Hong added the debate was further muddled by the CDC's early statements about wearing masks in public, which included the US Surgeon-General Jerome Adams writing on Twitter: "Stop buying masks."

    "This initial misstep was due to several factors in late February 2020 — not having enough testing in the US to know how common [the virus] was already in the community, a shortage of personal protective equipment among health care workers, and the lack of cultural acceptance of [wearing masks] in the US in general," Dr Chin-Hong said.

    "In retrospect, the message should have been more nuanced, with more alternatives offered and not such a dramatic shunning of masks."

    Republicans change stance on masks as cases grow

    Mr Trump has been relatively vocal about his view of masks.

    During an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, he suggested people who wore masks were doing so to signal their disapproval of him, and he did not require people who attended to his rally in Tulsa to wear them.

    In May, Mr Trump also said he did not want to "give the press the pleasure" of seeing him wearing a mask during his visit to a manufacturing plant in Michigan.

    Gorana Grgic, a lecturer from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, told the ABC Mr Trump was signalling several things by not wearing a mask.

    "One, he is 'strong', so he doesn't need to use the mask because he perceives it as weakness; two, it means life is back to normal; and three, dismissing and questioning experts is what he's been doing for most of his political career," she said.

    "Those that oppose mask wearing [are] more likely to be conservative-leaning voters and more likely supporters of President Trump."

    However, the tide may be turning as cases grow and more senior republican leaders, including Mr Pence, Marco Rubio and Dick Cheney, start to vocalise the importance of wearing a mask during the pandemic.

    "Given the spike in infection rates over the past weeks, it will be more likely that more people will begin wearing masks, and take cues from leading Republican figures," Ms Grgic said.

    "Though I would say that hard-line Trump supporters will be more likely to replicate the President's behaviour and defy wearing masks."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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