Face masks: Government U-turn by public demand

Nickolay Romensky / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Prof. Nigel Young explores how public ethics are influencing government coronavirus policies.

The Government’s justification for recent sudden policy changes has been the public’s demand for action. This appears to be their preferred option when the policy would potentially have been unpopular if enacted by decree. So, rather than ‘following the science’, the Premier League’s decision to suspend football matches precipitated the decision to impose a lockdown; civil society acting first before the state. Meanwhile, horseracing, the ‘sport of kings’, staggered on for a week past the Cheltenham Gold Cup until that too was closed for business.

Now it is face masks – the masks of mutual protection – that represent the latest public-led occasion for a U-turn by demand. The scientific evidence on face masks is mixed. There is a consensus that face masks help prevent an infected wearer infecting others, while their efficacy in respect of day-to-day contacts among people without symptoms is not well evidenced. In understanding the public-led demand for face masks, the word ‘mutual’ is pivotal. The principle of reciprocity fuses ethical behaviour with enhancing one’s own chance of survival: you hope others will join you in doing the right thing, because ultimately it might save your own life. “I will unilaterally ‘mask-up’ to protect you, whether you reciprocate or not”. This principle of enlightened protection of health and life directly contrasts with the alternative doctrine of speedy mass infection and ‘herd immunity’, which may lead to the deaths of tens of thousands of people but a quick return to a more consumer orientated i.e. profitable, ‘normal’.

Both approaches are pragmatic, but have different goals and are informed by different principles. Many economists, plus Dominic Cummings it would seem, view only immediate self-interest to be a reliable motivator for human behaviour. In that frame, blocking our viral splutterings and avoiding infecting others – even our nearest and dearest – would not appeal to people and may be resisted as it would not be primarily for our own protection, but for the protection of others. Additionally, as the wearing of masks would be difficult to enforce even in a Wuhan-style lockdown with road blocks, penalties, and big brother apps, it was not pursued as a policy option. So the question remains: how to win through voluntarism?

There is a long tradition of public spiritedness and collective mutuality in civic relationships. The obvious examples are community institutions and facilities, such as public libraries, village halls and credit unions. The wearing of masks may not demonstrate a significant revival of community ethics or public responsibility given its limited sacrifice – wearing an uncomfortable face covering for a limited time to block toxic projectiles is hardly martyrdom – but it may encourage a shift towards greater self-interested altruism.

In exploring a role for social ethics in human behaviour there is room for the concept of enlightened reciprocity in transactions; they represent both learned and natural recognition of our common fate. A global pandemic, like climate change, encourages such recognition; we should have our masks ready, even if we may have to learn to smile with our eyes!

Nigel Young’s book “Postnational memory, peace and war; making pasts beyond borders” was published by Routledge in December 2019