One Saturday in July, Olivia Day got caught up in a march making its way down Regent Street. Visiting London for the day with her family, she hadn’t expected to end up surrounded by people protesting against coronavirus vaccines, masks and lockdowns.
Intimidated by the “angry atmosphere”, Olivia ducked into the nearest H&M. Within seconds of walking back out, a middle-aged couple started pointing at her and her family, shouting, “Take your fucking masks off, you sheep!” before a crowd began chanting “Off!” in their direction.
Olivia, who suffers from anxiety attacks, says, “I immediately began to tear up, and before I knew it I was on the floor of the shop, unable to breathe.”
Since then, Olivia has felt more nervous about wearing a mask in public, fearing she’ll receive similar comments or abuse. “So many people have really strong opinions on this topic,” she says, “and I want to avoid coming into contact with such extremes, where possible.”
An anti-mask protester. Photo: Guy Corbishley / Alamy Stock Photo
Olivia’s right: a lot of people do have strong opinions about masks – or “muzzles”, as some anti-maskers have taken to calling them. In the UK, government petitions to ban face coverings gathered tens of thousands of signatures, while newspaper columnists dedicated thousands of words to the issue.
This is despite a review of the available evidence suggesting that mask wearing may mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Obviously, some masks are more effective than others – a medical-grade N95 is much more likely to protect you and others than a hand-stitched face covering off Etsy – but there’s evidence that even basic cotton masks can block a high percentage of inhaled and exhaled aerosols.
And yet, the subject of mask-wearing has become perhaps the biggest cultural battleground to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.
Before “Freedom Day”, when COVID-19 restrictions were eased in England, retail workers shared their fears of customers becoming confrontational when asked to wear a mask. Sure enough, reports followed that both staff and customers had received abuse for simply wearing face coverings, let alone encouraging others to do so.
Now, as a large proportion of the population becomes fully vaccinated, the guidance continues to be: wear a mask – despite it no longer being a legal requirement to do so. Those who have been vaccinated may still become asymptomatic spreaders, and for those who haven’t been – or can’t be – vaccinated, this poses a risk.
Sam Knight, 39, who is considered clinically extremely vulnerable (CEV) due to having a rare form of asthma, says she continues to wear a mask “religiously”. On several occasions, she has received “rude looks” from people while walking in the street, and has been called an “asshole” in front of her children. “I’m frightened enough going out, thinking I have to protect myself against the virus. Now, I have to protect myself from human abuse for being a mask wearer,” she says.
Shortly after Freedom Day, 35-year-old Emma Carney was in a pub with a friend who’d only had one vaccination shot, so was wearing a mask to be “extra careful”. A man walked up to the pair and said, “What’s this? I thought I’d seen the last of these!” He then started touching the mask her friend was wearing. “The man was drunk and looked like he wanted to get in a fight, or at least intimidate my friend, so I grabbed his arm and marched us out of there as soon as possible,” says Emma.
The incident left Emma feeling “really angry”. “It’s just a mask,” she says. “I don’t understand why people are so bothered and feel as though they have to comment.”
A recent survey found that 95 percent of British adults are still wearing masks in public, meaning anti-maskers remain in the minority. Among the people I speak to who oppose wearing face coverings, the most common responses are that masks are “ineffective”, “unhygienic” and “dehumanising”.
Matthew Rhucroft, 37, who claims to have never worn a face mask, except when in a hospital or a care home, believes they are the “ultimate symbol of control”, saying, “It is the mask wearers holding us back. They perpetuate the pandemic narrative and the Stockholm Syndrome that keeps us under the spell.”
Although he claims not to have confronted anyone in person, Matthew says he has previously challenged people online about mask-wearing. “Most people indicate they’re not thinking for themselves and would rather be seen to be doing the right thing, or just not have any confrontation. It’s a herd mentality,” he says.
Chris*, 42, believes that face masks are part of a “relentless and insidious campaign of social engineering” led by the government. “It’s like a cult or new religion, with its own absurd and twisted morality and obsession with purity and guilt, dressed up in medical paraphernalia,” he says.
Chris, who also claims not to have confronted anyone in person, says he “feels sorry” for mask wearers who have been “indoctrinated” and “terrorised”, adding, “I can certainly see how some people blame those continuing to wear masks for perpetuating our general misery.”
For those continuing to wear masks, this perspective is a hard one to comprehend.
Evianne Suen, a 22-year-old student from Hong Kong who’s currently studying in London, was recently on her way to the supermarket when a man drove past and yelled at her to “take off the mask”. She says the experience has “made me very self-conscious, and amped up the fear I feel from wearing a mask in public”.
Before this encounter, says Evianne, mask-wearing was simply second nature to her: “It is a sense of courtesy, in our culture, to think not of ourselves first, but of other people. And it’s not hard to learn! It’s not something you have to be East Asian to do.”
*Chris would not provide his surname.