Since last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that Americans wear cloth face coverings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in public settings, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, where it’s more difficult to maintain social distancing. The hope is that more Americans wearing masks will keep individuals who have the virus but don’t have symptoms from giving it to others unknowingly. 

Cloth masks reportedly aren’t perfect at protecting the wearer from the virus. But if enough people wear them, according to some public health models, they can play a role, along with other measures such as social distancing and conscientious hand washing, in helping slow transmission to the point it halts the spread of the disease. But as time has gone on, masks have become another political football in our country even as polls suggest that three-quarters of adults have bought or made one and majorities in both parties say they’re wearing them.

A recent story by Eric Adler profiled the divide over wearing masks in The Kansas City Star. It seems wearing or not wearing a mask has become a symbol of one’s attitude toward the COVID-19 pandemic, dealing with risks and even one’s political beliefs or view about President Donald Trump and his handling of the crisis. Political figures as varied as Trump and members of the Sedgwick County Commission have been criticized for appearing in public without wearing masks. Residents of Prairie Village divided sharply over a proposal to make wearing them mandatory in stores and other public spaces. A writer at The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, contended that the president can’t exhibit the strength and leadership he needs to guide the country from behind a mask. Critics consider such considerations shortsighted masculine bravado

A new dividing line in Kansas is developing around people who wear masks in public and those who don't
Kristie Cook’s mask asks for some space as she hands out food to the homeless during the coronavirus pandemic in Wichita. (Photo by Fernando Salazar/Wichita Journalism Collaborative)

The politicization of masks helps illuminate a leadership hazard for those of us with an interest in trying to live with and work across different political factions in this country. On one hand, there’s tremendous value in being thoughtful about making overt political statements. The more one uses language and symbols that are clearly associated with a certain faction, the more difficult it can be to be viewed credibly by an opposing faction. When it comes to making progress on really tough issues, the Kansas Leadership Center’s idea of energizing others by starting where they are suggests that it’s wise to be careful about sending signals that we’re only out to enforce our side’s worldview.

But there’s not really a whole lot of middle ground to stake out when it comes to wearing a mask: You either wear one or you don’t, and either decision now says something about where you stand in this country’s divisions over responding to the coronavirus. So what kind of leadership is required to navigate division when you’ve been clearly marked?

This isn’t a theoretical problem. As more Kansans return to work and public space in the weeks to come, there are bound to be many conflicts as more people interact with those whose views, values, loyalties and losses when it comes to the pandemic are very different from their own. The urge to shame those who don’t wear masks or belittle those who do will be powerful for some. Perhaps even worse is that during a pandemic, it’s never as simple as letting each person do what they wish. For interventions to work in ridding society of this disease, critical masses of people have to act in concert, perhaps putting aside things they value or care about deeply for the greater good. This applies to lots of interventions aimed at stemming the virus, from observing public gathering limits to participating in contract tracing efforts to inform and isolate those who’ve been exposed.       

If there’s a common purpose here worthy of binding us together, it’s the need to always be mindful of the impact one’s actions has on others even in the midst of taking care of one’s self. A pandemic destroys the illusion that anyone is an island. So much of what happens to one person depends on another’s actions. Does the worker stay home when sick to prevent from spreading the virus? Does the person in line at the pharmacy respect social distancing? The lessons of past pandemics is that one super spreader of a disease can infect and kill many.

But wearing a mask isn’t evidence of righteousness on its own, either. If the purpose of wearing a mask is to protect others, that consideration and regard need to be extended more broadly. People must avoid the temptation to fail to see the humanity in those who make decisions they disagree with, even if they see those decisions as selfish, shortsighted or fearful.

While masks remain a tool against the virus, the greatest weapon is a more unified state and country, one where its people are more at war with the coronavirus than with one another. It’s a challenge that extends beyond masks to dealing with the entire pandemic and the fissures it exposes. For instance, in a recent New York Times piece, a reporter contemplated the possibility of half the country refusing to take a COVID-19 vaccine when it arrives.  

Building new bonds of trust and unity amid frayed social connections requires more than a mask or vaccine. It’s a job that calls for sewing common threads through a diverse patchwork with patience, humility, empathy, persistence and persuasion, not contempt for the other side. 

In a battle against an invisible enemy, there’s comfort to be found in fighting a villain that can be more easily identified. A detested political faction makes a convenient scapegoat. But if the fight against the coronavirus proceeds on the path to becoming just another partisan battlerground, it’s hard to see how anyone emerges the winner.     

Chris Green is the managing editor of The Journal.

The Journal, the print and digital magazine of the Kansas Leadership Center, is publishing a digital newsletter that explores what is working, what isn’t working and what’s being learned during the response to COVID-19. To receive updates, subscribe here:


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