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The problem with men and masks

"Always a divisive figure, Trump has outdone himself at a moment when Americans expect better." Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

BONNIE GREER on how masks are becoming another signifier in the culture wars.

I knew that the severe part of the lockdown was over when I felt a rumble in my apartment and the sound of the pavement outside being split open.

Construction was back, and with it construction workers, practically singing like the birds they had driven away by the arrival of their cranes and trucks and loud voices.

This is OK because no one lives near Oxford Circus – where I do – out of a longing for the countryside, but what was fascinating and disturbing was the behaviour of some of the workers.

They were, quite literally, in each other’s faces. Some were coughing, and as I watched them, I wondered if this was, as they say in the US, the British version of a ‘trickle test’ – ie, which guy can metaphorically pee the farthest. Because I knew instinctively that something deeply male was going on.

An hour or so later, the white van drivers came; and the guys who deliver stuff on motorbikes. There’s a kind of resting place nearby that they congregate at between gigs, so it was easy to observe them.

Now we all need them; maybe they deserve a kind of applause too, because they help keep what’s still going, going.

But they, too, exhibited the same kind of behaviour as the construction workers: in-your-face. All the way.

I thought at first I was experiencing a kind of delirium as a result of my eight weeks of self-isolation, but what I saw was actually happening.

At my local Tesco and Sainsbury’s, and sometimes even in genteel Waitrose, you can see men –not all, of course, but a handful – out to defy this pandemic.

A guy in front of me in the queue, who could not have been much younger than Colonel Tom, stood in front of the cashier, she shielded by Plexiglass, and pulled out some bills to pay for his food. But not before he had a good cough, waved the air after he did it, and handed her the money.

She told me that this was not unusual.

I’ve seen guys tussle with security guards who ask them, as politely as possible, to social distance.

I have also witnessed men confront other men about not wearing masks, not social distancing. So this is certainly not about all men. But maybe about a certain type of male behaviour that is becoming a prominent factor in this catastrophe – not just a disregard for personal safety measures, and a reckless attitude
towards others, but also a disparagement of any measures that those others might take.

‘Mask shaming’ is now a real thing. People are criticised for wearing them by those who don’t. A view has taken hold that wearing a mask is a sign, not of good sense and consideration, but of weakness.

Ryan McGee, a US sportswriter, described being mask-shamed when he was out shopping, by a man who shouted that he was a ‘snowflake’ and a ‘sheep’.

Mask shamers can follow the lead of the most powerful man on earth, the president of the United States. Donald Trump refuses to wear a mask, against the advice of his own medical experts. At least he does not wear it around the press pool.

Trump has explained that he ‘just can’t see myself’ in the Oval Office wearing a mask behind the Resolute Desk.

This attitude extends down to his vice-president, who often does not wear a mask in public either. This, even though his press secretary tested positive for the virus.

Trump explains that he himself is tested every day anyway. But of course, we all know that a ‘negative’ is a lagging indicator: it only tells the state-of-play at the moment of testing.

Testing is better than nothing, but there are false negatives. And testing is not infallible.

Trump has told advisers that he believes wearing a mask would ‘send the wrong message’. In fact, not wearing one sends a worse message. The efficacy of masks is the subject of much debate, but most countries and most experts seem to be coming round to the idea that they do perform a useful role in controlling the spread of the virus.

Yet a study found that men were less inclined to wear a mask in public then women when they were not mandatory. The study also found that men believed that they were less likely to be affected by the virus.

This attitude is really bad because the male death rate from Covid-19 appears to be significantly higher than the female one. No one yet knows exactly why. But there is plenty of speculation. And plenty of studies.

Some say that men are more inclined to engage in ‘risky behaviour’ i.e. they are more likely to smoke than women. And we know that the coronavirus likes the lungs.

Other studies suggest the female immune system is better than the male; elderly women have better hearts than elderly men; or that the inactive X-chromosome protects females. One study just stated flat out that women in general are just cleaner than men and this is the key in making them less likely to catch the virus.

And there are those studies which suggest men are less likely to wear masks.

There are some horrible niche reasons for male mask-avoidance: like
the fear of some ethnic minority men – especially black men – to put masks on their faces. In some parts of the United States, this attempt at good citizenship has not ended well for the black male.

There may not be the science to support this, but I would suggest that other behaviours that might make men vulnerable include the ‘invincibility syndrome’ that some men have; as well
as the attitude that ‘health is not my job’.

Or perhaps one factor is something as basic as the fact that men tend to shake hands with strangers, handshaking in general being a practice that Dr Anthony Fauci, the top epidemiologist in the US, says should be relegated to the history books.

That, and other things render this pandemic not only the end of the world as we have known it. It also makes us understand that there is no automatic post pandemic future: That we ourselves do not actively make.

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