No, Loving Your Neighbour Doesn’t Require You to Cover Four Face
At the time of writing, it looks likely that the majority of COVID restrictions will be removed in England on 19th July, including mandatory mask-wearing. At the same time, the government is encouraging the continued voluntary use of face coverings in certain circumstances.
Many Christians are portraying this as a matter of love of neighbour: face masks are supposed to protect others (rather than the wearer), so only an inconsiderate and selfish person would fail to wear one, if doing so would help to reduce the spread of COVID, and might even save someone’s life.
It isn’t as simple as that, however. After all, potentially fatal communicable diseases (such as influenza) have always been with us; and we’ve never previously considered covering our faces en masse, even in a bad flu season. While wearing surgical masks in public places has been a common sight in South Asia for some time, we in the West always considered it rather odd, and foreign to our way of life.
The truth is that, due to the remarkable success of the vaccination programme in the United Kingdom combined with the natural trajectory of pandemic illnesses over time, the probability of becoming seriously ill with or dying from COVID is now really very small, and below the risk from other diseases with which we are used to living. The great majority of those catching COVID are experiencing mild illness, either because they have been vaccinated, or because they are young and healthy, and were never in much danger from it in the first place. At the same time, the evidence for the effectiveness of face masks in reducing community transmission is mixed; and any effect is relatively small. At best, wearing face masks may contribute to a minor reduction in the transmission of an illness which is already claiming only a handful of lives.
Meanwhile, the widespread wearing of face coverings has significant downsides. It is a sad truth that humans as a species are not terribly good at assessing probability and risk, and a sea of covered faces perpetuates fear, reinforcing the belief that COVID is significantly more of a threat than it really is. Face coverings are also dehumanising: we recognise one another by our faces, and read so much into facial expressions. With covered faces, we can no longer exchange a smile with a stranger. Face masks have, according to research from Manchester University, been shown to impede communication for both the speaker and the listener, exacerbate social anxiety, and cause stress and anxiety amongst those with no previous history of it. Face masks are bad for mental health, and bad for social cohesion. As Christians, it is surely better for us to interact with one another’s humanity to the fullest extent, even if that brings with it a small element of increased risk, rather than to reduce ourselves and others to disease vectors.
At the start of 2020, with what now appears like absurd naïveté, I had hoped that the pandemic might bring us all together. Instead, it now appears that to mask or not to mask is becoming the latest badge of tribal identity in our increasingly fractious culture wars—and one which runs the risk of manifesting itself with particular intensity because, quite literally, we wear it on our faces. Those of us who go maskless may sometimes stand accused of lacking Christian charity, and of putting others before ourselves: this is by no means justified. At the same time, we need to remind ourselves that those who have come to a different conclusion may well have done so for sincere and compassionate reasons. Our society, and our Church, are fragile enough as it is: it is not worth tearing ourselves apart further over this.