I remember vividly the day, at the tail end of March, when facemasks suddenly became synonymous with morality: either one cared about the lives of others and donned a mask, or one was selfish and refused to do so. The shift occurred virtually overnight.
Only a day or two before, I had associated this attire solely with surgeons and people living in heavily polluted regions. Now, my friends' favorite pastime during our weekly Zoom sessions was excoriating people for running or socializing without masks in Prospect Park. I was mystified by their certitude that bits of cloth were the only thing standing between us and mass death, particularly when mere weeks prior, the message from medical experts contradicted this new doctrine.
On February 29, the U.S. surgeon general infamously tweeted:
"Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS. . . They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus."
Anthony Fauci, the best-known member of the coronavirus task force, advised Americans not to wear masks around this time.
Similarly, in the earliest weeks of the pandemic, the CDC maintained that masks should be worn only by individuals who were symptomatic or caring for a sick person, a position that the WHO stood by even longer.
As rapidly as mask use became a matter of ethics, the issue transformed into a political one, exemplified by an article printed on March 27 in the New York Times, entitled "More Americans Should Probably Wear Masks for Protection." The piece was heavy on fear-mongering and light on evidence. While acknowledging that "[t]here is very little data showing that flat surgical masks, in particular, have a protective effect for the general public," the author went on to argue that they "may be better than nothing," and cited a couple of studies in which surgical masks ostensibly reduced influenza transmission rates.