“I WILL not be muzzled like a mad dog,” yelled one man at a public hearing on a proposal to mandate wearing of face masks in Florida.

“I have the ability to do what I want, when I want, how I want,” said another.

Across the United States, there have been reports of people being abused for wearing face masks or for not wearing them.

Bizarrely, in North Carolina, one of the few states to require wearing of masks in public, the practice could soon become illegal.

Like many other southern states, North Carolina legislated in the 1950s to ban masks as a means to combat the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist group whose members wore white hoods while committing violent crimes against African Americans.

The law banning face masks was temporarily suspended in April due to the coronavirus pandemic but, as a local television station reports, that suspension is due to expire on 1 August and the Republican-controlled legislature has so far failed to agree on extending it.

How did a simple piece of cloth attached by elastic behind the ears become the potent symbol of ideological allegiance it is in the US today?

The country’s president memorably derided the wearing of masks as a sign of personal weakness, while requests that people mask up have allegedly led to numerous violent incidents including the fatal shooting of a Michigan security guard.

In the delicate balance any nation needs to strike between individual liberty and broader social interests, the US has always leaned more towards the individual end of the spectrum. Their long-standing refusal to restrict gun ownership is perhaps the clearest example of that.

So perhaps it’s not surprising, at a time when the nation’s political divisions are so stark, that any attempt to control individual behaviour would become such a flash point.

The humble face mask might turn out to be a better indicator of how people will vote in the next presidential election than any opinion poll.

Those who oppose compulsory mask wearing don’t always limit their activism to protecting their own right to go bare-faced. There have been incidents across America of people being attacked physically or verbally for wearing masks in public.

Apparently, individual liberty only applies to those who object to the masks, not those who support them.

It’s not just in the US either. In my inner city area, a local GP and her wife were recently verbally abused by a group of young men on the street for wearing masks.

When one of the women shared the experience on social media, responses were a mix of sympathetic and further criticism of her for wearing a mask in the first place.

Several commenters chose to lecture her about the alleged lack of evidence for mask wearing. (For what it’s worth, the evidence that mask wearing helps to prevent the spread of disease is growing and a number of experts are calling for it to be made mandatory here).

Why would anybody attack someone for choosing to wear something on their own face? I guess some Moslem women might have a thing or two to say about that.

Masked faces can be disquieting, as the Ku Klux Klan and its victims surely knew.

Those towering white hoods were not just about concealing the perpetrators’ identities so they would be protected from criminal prosecution. They were designed to inspire terror.

When we can’t see somebody’s face, we lose many of the cues that help us to navigate the world and relate to others, cues we have been learning to read from infancy. Perhaps that is why some people seem to find the masked face so threatening.

If so, it’s a fear we should be capable of overcoming. After all, in many Asian countries, wearing masks in flu season is just part of everyday life – a practice we might be well advised to start emulating.

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.



The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.



Wearing masks in public should be made mandatory in states with active COVID-19 cases
  • Strongly agree (68%, 59 Votes)
  • Agree (17%, 15 Votes)
  • Neutral (7%, 6 Votes)
  • Strongly disagree (5%, 4 Votes)
  • Disagree (3%, 3 Votes)

Total Voters: 87

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6 thoughts on “To mask or not to mask: liberty or public health?

  1. Cate Swannell says:

    It didn’t show up in our moderation feed Andrew. Post it again and we’ll review it.

  2. Andrew Renaut says:

    I posted a comment on here several days ago and it hasn’t been published. There’s little point in inviting comment and then refusing to make it public simply because it doesn’t fit your agenda. It was in no way offensive and this type of censorship is the worst possible type of journalism. You have every reason to be thoroughly ashamed of yourselves.

  3. Malcolm Brown says:

    This is a complex topic – there are plenty risks from masks, and getting the balance right is tricky. It’s probably best to advocate their use only in higher risk situations.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Like all the public health initiatives to combat COVID 19 we sadly lack any randomised controlled trials showing a clinical benefit from wearing masks. We have sacrificed millions of jobs, damaged the education of our children and cast 50 million people in to poverty with no good evidence that our response to this virus is making any difference to the long term outcome. History may judge this to be the greatest failure of the medical profession to behave responsibly.

  5. Associate Professor Sanjiva Wijesinha, Faculty of Medicine, Monash University says:

    This article i wrote on 6th July 2020 (prior to jane mccredie’s piece of 13th July) may put things in perspective.


    As is common custom in Japan, one wears a mask to prevent passing on one’s germs to others – rather than to protect oneself. All part of the attitude of showing concern for others!

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think that masking up DOES to a certain extent help DETER spread of Respiratory communicable diseases; it is NOT entirely preventative, I am aware of that. . People who object to face-masking will give 101 reasons for not wearing it.
    When it comes to such a serious Pandemic of COVID-19 of which we are still quite ignorant of its prognosis for certain groups of people + its high risk of communicability , I think any method to deter the spread should be adopted.
    Let’s face it , does it hurt or harm the wearer? You may save a life.
    If a potential perpetrator of harmful acts wants to carry out their evil acts, they can always don on a mask + do it; haven’t bank robbers been doing so for ages??
    So please for the good of the community , for now @ least , put on the mask + get on with life ; stop this time-wasting debate re to -wear or not to-wear a mask until we have better control of this COVID-19.

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