For a communicator, the lessons are clear. We live in unprecedented times. Communications in a crisis is never easy. But, when lives are at stake — honesty and leadership are clear. As America struggles with millions of cases of Covid-19 the fight has become not over how to contain or overcome it — but over masks. From a communications viewpoint, it is startling that something so basic should be so divisive. Instead of the front line of containment, they have become a sharp symbol of political division, so much so that the nation’s health may be hanging in the balance. And nations where the issue of wearing masks has been equated with one’s civil duty and community sprint have fared so much better than America.
While this is a tragic case, it is nothing new. History is full of political images that are powerful symbols, from Betsy Ross to Joe the Plumber - they offer icons and stories.
But it seems unprecedented that a life saving simple thing could become a new flag of rebellion: A twisted symbol of personal freedom. So, if you don't wear a mask, you send a message that you support the president, and if you do wear a mask you are a dem?
Divisive political symbols are explosive, because they tend to communicate partitions, not unity. Mussolini used Roman faces to symbolize his movement, Nazis took an ancient Indian symbol to represent their police state. The clinched fist is the international symbol of socialism, and the hammer and sickle of communism.
But why a face mask? The image of personal rights has long been a key factor in US society, and has led to conflict through history. But, to express one’s personal freedom without a mask is a slap to society, and the concept that working taught Americans to overcome problems. Just as American’s saved and sacrificed to win World War II. We strived as a society to land Americans on the moon, and overcome the Depression. Today, we see the irony of protests against stay at home orders as an attack on personal freedom, with the battle flag of the Confederacy which fought to preserve human slavery.
According to the CDC website: Cloth face coverings may help prevent people who have COVID-19 from spreading the virus to others. Wearing a cloth face covering will help protect people around you, including those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and workers who frequently come into close contact with other people (e.g., in stores and restaurants). Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings. The spread of COVID-19 can be reduced when cloth face coverings are used along with other preventive measures, including social distancing, frequent hand-washing, and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.
But President Trump told the Wall Street Journal: "Masks are a double-edged sword. People touch them. And they grab them and I see it all the time. They come in, they take the mask. Now they're holding it now in their fingers. And they drop it on the desk and then they touch their eye and they touch their nose.
He had earlier insulted a reporter for wearing one to a press conference saying you want to be ‘’politically correct.” White House officials then criticized Joe Biden for appearing in public in a mask.
While in other nations political parties have united to fight the spread of Covid-19, here the message is that wearing a mask in public is as political as wearing MAGA hat. That mixed message cost not only lives, but means that this nation will merge later and more bloodied from this crisis. With a leadership vacuum, conflicting messaging, and a society unwilling to do what needs to be done, the mask may become the symbol of America’s failure to live up to its promise, to overcome false messages, and to work in unity to save lives. The irony is that by not wearing masks and not being vigilant, those who argue for a return to economic activity are pushing the recovery they seek farther and farther down the road.