Our current public health controversy over masking suggests need for a new declaration

By Dennis Archambault

The idea of freedom is baked into the culture of the United States. Most of us celebrate the right to be free, but we define that freedom in different ways: Freedom to be the rugged individual or the freedom to be a collective, equitable we; the idea of freedom works its way into many aspects of our lives, especially at this time of year. And the contradictions are most profound: Juneteenth, as the Independence Day for African Americans, and, of course, July 4th, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed, a symbolic moment for freedom in America.

The fervent belief in personal freedom has been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic as the rights of “me” versus the common good of “we” are at odds. A country whose culture values collectivity would understand that when its leadership determines that a set of actions are needed for the good of the whole, they are done. In America, they are debated, with reason and beliefs on contrary sides. Absent role models, people tend to do as they and their peers believe to be right, or in the case of masks, comfortable.

While the mayor of Detroit and the Michigan governor both adopted the practice of wearing masks early-on, as the World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control began to recommend it as a means of preventing transmission of the disease, many Congressional leaders just recently began wearing masks, and President Trump only conceded that there may be times when it’s appropriate.

In Michigan, the opponents of masking were aligned with the opponents of Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders on the state’s response to the pandemic, illustrated in protests at the state capitol. At issue was the state’s lockdown, but the symbol of opposition was to not wear a mask.

Public opinion polls show a majority of Americans wear masks when out in public, but it is a politicly decisive issue, according to The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/29/face-masks-us-politics-coronavirus) whether businesses and local governments should mandate mask usage has become a divisive political issue. A recent Pew Research Center poll found Democrats were more likely to say they wear masks than Republicans.

In the spirit of Independence Day, one opponent of masking quoted Benjamin Franklin: In a letter to the Tampa Bay Times, one reader quoted Benjamin Franklin to make the case for individual freedom: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

At a public hearing in Palm Beach, Florida, one anger resident said, “You’re removing our freedoms and stomping on our constitutional rights by these communist dictatorship orders or laws you want to mandate.” Reopen NC, a group that opposes shutdown orders in North Carolina, calls masks “muzzles,” and along with other public measures are “ways our freedom is being eroded”. The group started a “Burn Your Mask Challenge” where people post videos on social media of themselves burning their masks and use the hashtag “#IgniteFreedom”.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams countered this week saying that masks are an “instrument of freedom.”  He played to something that may resonate with the American public more than political freedom: “If you want the return of college football this year, wear a face covering. If you want a chance at prom next spring, wear a face covering.”

With all the contentious rhetoric over whether or not do adopt a behavior that is at the most inconvenient – respecting, of course, the physiological challenges of those truly compromised by breathing problems (by the way, if you get an email touting mask exemption cards from the “Freedom to Breathe Agency, they’re fake) – we might be better served to move toward a declaration “interdependence.” Such a declaration which acknowledges that we all have individual rights, but that we also all have responsibilities to achieve the greater good; that everyone is equal and that the common good values equity and will pay the price to achieve it.

To that end, the debate over masking is a classic clash of American ideology. Perhaps it’s healthy that we feel so strongly about freedom that we would argue about a public health practice, but on a deeper level, it’s not about “me,” it’s about “us.” There may be no greater urgency to proclaim interdependence than during a contagious disease pandemic like COVID-19, on the eve of the 4th of July.

Dennis Archambault is vice president of Public Affairs for Authority Health.