This opinion piece has been written by Scheherazade Bloul, PhD candidate to Professor Fethi Mansouri, UNESCO Chair for Cultural Diversity and Social Justice and coauthored with Dr Shakira Hussein, a researcher based at the University of Melbourne. This piece was published by ABC News online on 15 July 2020.

As the number of COVID 19 cases began to spike in Melbourne in June 2020, Dr Norman Swan, whose daily ABC podcast Coronacast has become the nation’s most trusted source for information on the pandemic, tweeted:

In the early stages of the pandemic, the advice from the World Health Organisation was that facial masks were not necessary except for people who were sick and showing symptoms and those caring for them. Health practitioners and policy makers in Australia, Europe, and North America discouraged the use of face masks as a means of infection control on the grounds that the general public lacked the knowledge to wear them correctly. Given the shortage of personal protective equipment at the time, there were also concerns that the widespread use of disposable facemasks would come at the expense of frontline medical workers.

However, fabric facial coverings have been a routine public health measure in East Asian societies such as China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan since the 2003 SARS epidemic. In Australian cities too, it has become commonplace to see people of East Asian background wearing face masks during the winter flu season.

As evidence mounted for the effectiveness of fabric face masks in reducing disease transmission, the failure to learn from the expertise gained by East Asian health professionals during the SARS epidemic seemed increasingly misguided and bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the US Centre for Disease Control have shifted their guidelines accordingly. The Victorian government now “strongly urges” adults to cover their faces in circumstances when social distancing is difficult, but has refrained from following the examples of countries including France, Austria, and Spain by making them mandatory in such circumstances.

Medical face masks have become a signifier of East Asian identity and as Sinophobia rose along with the COVID 19 death toll, those wearing them were singled out for racist abuse and harassment.

We suggest that the institutional scepticism and community hostility towards facial covering mirror the moral panic generated by the “burqa ban” debates which located face-coverings as emblems in a civilisational conflict during the decade preceding the pandemic. The “clash of civilisations” forecast by Samuel Huntington back in the 1990s has now transitioned from the battle between Islam and the West, to one that Huntington termed “the West versus the rest” — with the so-called “Confucian civilisation” prominent among “the rest.” Just as visibly Muslim women were vilified as carriers of terrorism, people of East Asian appearance are now scapegoated as carriers of the so-called “Chinese virus.”

Face masks have become flashpoints for disputes over national identity, liberty, and the limits of state power in a range of locations — perhaps nowhere more so than the United States. The uncovered face has become an important political signifier, with President Donald Trump until very recently refusing to wear a face mask and mocking those who choose to do so. With Trump reportedly believing that wearing a mask would make him appear “weak,” his uncovered face illustrates his persona as the simultaneously invincible and victimised leader.

As the death toll mounted in the Republican heartland, senior party leaders began to soften their opposition to face masks, with Vice President Mike Pence among those photographed wearing masks and some Republican governors mandating their use in confined spaces in order to mitigate the risks of reopening the economy.

The Worthy and the Unworthy
Thanks to the nation’s high-profile burqa ban, the uncovered face has been promoted as a symbol, not only of French national identity, but of “the Enlightenment Legacy” for which France is the self-appointed guardian. Government-issued posters circulated when the ban was introduced showed the image of Marianne, the symbol of the French Republic, alongside the proclamation “The Republic lives with its face uncovered” (La République se vit à visage découvert). Like the ban on visible religious symbols in state schools which had preceded it, the legislation outlawing facial coverings was carefully worded so as not to single out a particular religious community, while being clearly understood as targeting Muslim religious practices in particular.

Masks worn for medical purposes are exempt from France’s ban on facial covering (which, as the Chinese embassy noted in a warning to its nationals in February, did not prevent fraudsters posing as police from imposing “fines” on Chinese visitors to the country), and laws have been introduced requiring French citizens to wear facemasks on public transport and in other enclosed public spaces to protect against the spread of COVID 19 — while no changes were made to the 2010 religious veiling law. This double-standard points, we believe, to an inherently imperial, blatantly Islamophobic (and racist) exercise of state power over its “unworthy” citizens.

A similar distinction between worthy and unworthy citizens can be seen in the Victorian state government’s reluctance to impose mandatory face masks upon “mainstream Australians” while showing no such reluctance to impose the full force of the state upon the residents of nine public housing towers in Melbourne which had been found to have dangerously high rates of COVID 19 .These “unworthy people” who are poor, (mostly) black, brown, and/or Muslim, have been held in a prison-style lockdown, while their neighbours in “the world’s most liveable city” are trusted to leave their homes while adhering to COVID-safe regulations.

The difference between the two cohorts is not only household income but also skin colour, physical features, and religious identity. This type of eugenic categorisation is embedded in the colonial hierarchies that have permeated the structures of the modern state since its founding as a penal colony and the genocide of Aboriginal people.

In contrast to their right-wing critics, protestors at Black Lives Matter rallies in locations ranging from Melbourne to Sydney to Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minnesota have embraced the use of face masks as a way of staying safe while continuing to engage in acts of dissent and civil disobedience. Politicians and media commentators have blamed the “selfish” protestors for a spike in COVID-19 cases, despite no such spike having materialised within the relevant time frame. Similarly, the volunteers who stepped in to provide basic necessities to the residents living under hard lockdown in the nine public housing towers in Melbourne wore face masks to mitigate the risk of falling sick themselves.

The Politics of Fashion
Unsurprisingly, the fashion industry has capitalised on the crisis by turning their factories into mask and PPE-making facilities. As previously seen during the bushfire crisis, designer brands are turning a profit from face-masks, with those from higher-end brands selling for just under $US200 and on ebay for upwards of $US250. These masks are manufactured under the same exploitative conditions as other products of the garment industry, with women and girls in developing societies often working under slave-like conditions. Only a few weeks ago, workers in factories making clothes for Zara and Primark in Myanmar were fired after forming unions — the reason management gave was related COVID-19 austerity measures.

At the other end of the market, many small businesses and newly unemployed workers have begun to sew facial masks in an attempt to survive the economic recession, while some community organisations are making masks to give away to those on low-incomes.

Although designer face masks are becoming a fashion must-have for those mainstream consumers who can afford them, wearing a face cover of any description remains a hazardous undertaking for members of racialised minorities. For those of East Asian background, the protection that masks may offer against infection must be balanced against the increased likelihood of being targeted by racial abuse. One of the authors of this paper (who is visibly brown-skinned, although not East Asian) was harassed on the streets of Melbourne while wearing a fabric mask by an older white male who breached social distance guidelines to shout, “The masks don’t work!” at close range.

For others, the risks associated with covering the face are potentially lethal. African American men are understandably reluctant to cover their faces for fear that it will see them racially profiled as criminals by the police. The misclassification already exists in the form of the hooded, dangerous black man, posing a threat to the white (especially) women. This is why 17-year-old Treyvon Martin was murdered — and countless others with him. It does not matter what items of clothing you put on your person: if you’re black or brown, you’ll be profiled, harassed, and potentially killed.

Whose Values?
Evidence to date suggests that while face masks may provide some protection to the person wearing them, their primary value lies in the preventing them from infecting others around them, should they already be infected. Hence: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” They are, then, an inherently communitarian instrument. Those opposed to the use of face masks justify their stance in terms of libertarian individualism, while those promoting them speak in terms of community and mutual support. Their use by Black Lives Matter protestors are consistent with the values of empathy, loving engagement, and collective community, which are listed among the movement’s thirteen guiding principles.

In East Asia, face masks are regarded as hallmarks of courtesy and good manners — long stereotyped as “Asian values” in contrast to the supposed “Western values” of individual choice and liberty. Masks are fast acquiring similar connotations of empathy and care in other communities as well, as societies adjust to the no-longer-new normal of the pandemic. The true “clash” has always been within rather than between civilisations — but never more so than now.

It remains clear, however, that much of the discourse around face covering is much more concerned with the colour of the face beneath the mask than with the mask itself.

Shakira Hussein is a writer and researcher based in the Asia Institute at the University of Melbourne. She is the author of From Victims to Suspects: Muslim women since 9/11.

Scheherazade Bloul is a writer, radio host and PhD candidate at the UNESCO Chair for Comparative Research on Cultural Diversity and Social Justice based at Deakin University and hosted by the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation.