Bridging the Mask Divide

It was one of the more striking patterns I noticed as coronavirus spread around the globe: In some countries, you rarely saw a person walking around outside without a mask covering their faces. In other countries, you rarely someone with it.

Up until recently, the United States belonged in that latter category. But after months of insisting masks weren’t necessary for the general public, the Trump administration reversed course last week and recommended that the public wear cloth masks to slow the spread of the virus.

To some experts, it was an overdue course correction. Masks have long been widely worn throughout East Asia to limit the spread of viruses such as the flu. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea launched an aggressive campaign to regularly get masks out to each of its 51 million inhabitants. More recently, countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have mandated that people wear masks when they go outside.

Some studies have shown that masks may provide the user with a modicum of protection. At a minimum, they’re better than nothing. More importantly, however, masks may be effective in protecting other people if the user is asymptomatic — and according to some estimates, up to 20% of people with coronavirus exhibit mild to no symptoms — because masks have been shown to prevent the spread of droplets that infect others.

But the Trump administration had good reason for not mandating the widespread use of masks: The country was (and still is) woefully short on them, leaving front-line medical workers scrambling for protection. If the public began hoarding surgical masks, it could leave doctors and nurses even more vulnerable to the virus.

But the problem is that this wasn’t always the reasoning given by officials. For example, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that, “You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider.”

Why? Because theoretically you might be more likely to touch your face to adjust the mask. Other officials warned that people with masks may let their guards down and not adhere to other precautionary measures like social distancing.

While those concerns are valid, they also caused confusion among people who would see citizens of other countries openly wearing masks in public (The Atlantic has a great piece on the debate over masks here).

In hindsight, it would’ve been better if the administration had made it clear that the main reason for not recommending masks for the general public was to protect medical workers. It also could’ve easily advised people to consider cloth masks much sooner.

[UPDATE: According to a scoop from Axios, “Top Trump administration officials had been developing a plan to give cloth masks to huge numbers of Americans, but the idea lost traction amid heavy internal skepticism.”

On the one hand, at least that shows they recognized the usefulness of cloth masks. On the other, it also shows that the decision to announce their usefulness could’ve been done sooner. But the opposition to the idea of giving out cloth masks to Americans is understandable given the sheer logistics of such a massive endeavor.]

After all, the recent recommendation has not caused a run on masks. Instead, it’s resulted in people getting pretty creative when it comes to fashioning their do-it-yourself masks. (Who knew sewing would pay off in a pandemic?)

Granted, there has been a lot of confusion about what kind of homemade masks are most effective (The Washington Post has a good breakdown here). There’s no hard proof on what works best and experts still fear that DIY masks may give people a false sense of security.

But those fears overlook the growing consensus that even homemade fabric masks can contribute to slowing the rate of transmission.

There’s obviously still so much we don’t know about coronavirus, and we’ll be studying aspects of the pandemic — including the use of masks — for years to come.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway here is rethinking the cultural taboo in the West associated with wearing masks in public. In East Asia, wearing a mask when you’re sick is considered a courtesy and an admirable trait. It’s also just common sense that if you want to protect yourself from viruses, you cover your face.

Maybe if we ever reach the point where we’re better prepared with a copious supply of surgical masks for the next inevitable health crisis, we can re-examine our aversion to masks and the social stigma attached to wearing them in public. If anything, coronavirus has been a powerful reminder that we need to re-examine our assumptions and complacency when it comes to public health.

Covid-19 Puts Clampdown on Protests

The year 2019 was marked by historic protests in countries as diverse as Chile, Sudan, Iraq, Hong Kong, India, Algeria and Iran. The year 2020 saw the coronavirus pandemic stamp out all mass gatherings. So what does this portend for the democratic movements that seem to have lost their momentum and relevance in an age of Covid-19?

A recent commentary by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) theorizes that those mass protests — the culmination of a decade of grievances — will resurface once the pandemic ebbs.

In fact, “the Covid-19 crisis and its growing economic fallout have further illuminated many of the core grievances that drove mass protests over the past decade,” wrote CSIS’s Samuel Brannen. “It is important to note that the global uptick in protests in the last 10 years appears in many cases to have been rooted in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, which exacerbated lack of economic opportunity and dissatisfaction with governments…. With social distancing and quarantine measures just beginning, divisions between workforces and households are being laid bare.”

Brannen notes that in Hong Kong, perhaps the most famous of the 2019 uprisings, a recent poll found that “70 percent of respondents credited the people of Hong Kong and not the government for the success,” suggesting that protests will resume despite the fact that the territory was relatively successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, many experts say the surveillance tactics that countries like China and even democratic states like South Korea employed to track the virus won’t go away just because the virus does.

“Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale,” wrote Natasha Singer and Choe-Sang Hun in March 23 article for The New York Times.

“Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say,” they add.

Yet like the 9/11 surveillance aftermath, if the tactics used to combat coronavirus — such as analyzing location data on people’s cell phones — succeed in curbing the crisis, it remains to be seen just how loud the uproar will be over privacy concerns. Like the sweeping post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures that the U.S. implemented, people may view increased health surveillance as a necessary evil to stay safe.

After all, the debate over online privacy only erupted on a large scale after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and, more recently, the wave of privacy breaches at companies and social media giants like Facebook.

And we’re nowhere near coming to a resolution over how to protect privacy in an age of social media. Imagine how much coronavirus will complicate that debate.

Another wrinkle will be how successful authoritarian (and democratic) states are in using their surveillance powers to stop the outbreak. China may be fudging the number of coronavirus cases it has, but it has undeniably “flattened the curve.” If the Chinese see their country reopen for business and the number of fatalities drop to zero, while the outbreak ravages other countries like the U.S., are they likely to start questioning the government’s use of their smartphone data? Again, it’s all about the tradeoff for some people.

The problem is that the public reaction very much hinges on how effective a government’s aggressive new surveillance measures are in containing the fallout of coronavirus.

It’s a question that — like the controversy over 9/11 security reforms — will loom for a long time to come.

As Carrie Cordero and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security put in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Amid today’s global pandemic, key technology companies are in talks with federal and state governments about employing their tools against Covid-19…. All this and more, we hope, will help to stop the virus in its tracks, save lives and help Americans get back to normal. But such efforts—done in haste—also raise searching questions about the balance between privacy and public health. Decisions being made on the fly by governments, private firms and individuals will change the country’s digital social contract for years to come.”

Covid-19 Opportunity in Algeria?

There was an interesting recent article by Dr. Vish Sakthivel for the Middle East Institute (MEI) exploring whether the Hirak social movement that has consumed the streets of Algeria over the last year could — with the right strategy — can take advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to better organize itself and ultimately assert more power in the beleaguered North African nation.

Protests erupted after the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, tried to run for a fifth term after 20 years in office. Bouteflika, who shepherded Algeria through a bloody civil war, was ousted and the military elite took power. While the ruling government has made efforts to crack down on corruption, protesters say it still represents the old guard and needs to be completely chucked out.

But the protest movement has largely remained rudderless because of a lack of leadership and direction. Sakthivel, a nonresident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that the coronavirus pandemic, which has put a stop to the weekly street protests, could provide a political opening for the activists to regroup and strengthen their cause.

“With physical space unavailable for now, activists are taking to new domains, adapting established modes of action in the form of web- and balcony-based protests, dish-banging from windows, and doubling-down on social media communiques, with the intention of resuming physical occupation of the streets as quickly as possible,” Sakthivel wrote.

I doubt pot-banging and plans for more protests will accomplish much in the near term. To effect real change, it seems as if the protesters will need to establish a hierarchy and clear leadership that can engage the government in dialogue — much like Sudanese protesters did after the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir.

And if the regime fails to prepare for the pandemic, resulting in a surge of cases, the chaos could lend momentum to the Hirak movement — but only if it seized the moment by formulating a clear set of demands and plans for a democratic transition.

Protests are critical. But at some point, plans are even more critical.