Trust in government is emerging as an important factor in how a country fares on what might be called the coronavirus performance league table. That stands to reason: in the absence of a vaccine, ‘beating the virus’ is a collective social enterprise as much as a medical one – just as ‘saving our NHS’ was at the peak of the infection, although the government appears to have forgotten it. (The cost was perilously high, but that’s another story.) In other words, performance is less a matter of science, more a matter of political competence and leadership.
New support for that idea comes from a recent paper in the Lancet describing the ‘Cummings effect’. When the story of the adviser’s dash for Durham, breaching official lockdown advice, broke in May, the result wasn’t just an immediate and continuing loss of public confidence in the government – it changed people’s behaviour. Their growing unwillingness to follow the guidelines was the other side of the coin of declining trust. Rubbing it in, Durham’s former chief constable noted: ‘People were actually using the word “Cummings” in encounters with the police to justify antisocial behaviour’.
A more insidious seepage of confidence – leading to an almost virus-like spike of consternation, rage and conspiracy theories – has been triggered by the government’s vacillation over the desirability of wearing face masks. Indeed, when the history of the pandemic is written, there will likely be a special section on this mundane piece of cloth and gauze, which has become an unlikely symbol of the contradictions and jagged social and political divides that the coronavirus has generated.
It should have been simple. When everyone wears one, the face mask is an important element, along with maintaining distance, hand washing and restricting frequentation, in limiting transmission of the virus.
But it is not quite as straightforward as it looks. The mask has a systemic dimension, and the benefits are asymmetric. For the individual, wearing a mask is a mild inconvenience for not much return. For the collective, on the other hand, there is no downside, and the benefit is multiplicative because of a kind of network effect: the more widespread the use, the greater the value, including to individuals. If sufficient numbers mask up, in protecting other people you protect yourself. This makes it too, and this likewise has been much neglected, a powerful signifier. In the context of the above, wearing a mask is a badge of common endeavour, a recognition of the fact that your health depends partly on the behaviour of others, just as theirs depends on yours.
Yet for many in the individualistic US and UK, these scraps of fabric have become objects of scorn (‘face nappies’) and wearing them an affront to liberty – ‘facemask hell’ and ‘a monstrous imposition’, according to one MP. For some Americans they are symbol of oppression, even totalitarianism, an insult to religious feeling (‘denial of the God-created means of breathing’) or even a threat to wellbeing (one American woman bizarrely shouted to camera, ‘the reason I don’t wear a mask is the same as for not wearing underwear: things gotta breathe!’). According to a trade union poll, 44% of McDonald’s employees had been threatened or abused for insisting that customers don a mask. At least one American has been shot.
In short, instead of being a simple precaution, covering your face has morphed into a weapon in the culture wars – a sign of wokeness or meek compliance with an oppressive state on one hand, an identifier of aggressive right-wing libertarianism on the other.
How has this come about? In microcosm, the depressing story of the face mask mirrors the convulsive progress of the crisis as a whole: a drunken lurch from under- to overreaction, accompanied by mixed messaging and subsequent public cynicism, augmented by the Cummings effect and the utter untrustworthiness of the testing statistics. In the absence of trust, leaders have no levers to pull when they want to get a scared, suspicious and increasingly resentful country back to work. They can only beg and bribe.
In the UK no one has ever explained in simple, clearly understandable terms the cumulative benefits of mask-wearing. And, disastrously, western authorities, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), initially played down of masks not for medical reasons but because they feared that a rush on masks would aggravate the strains on national health services then struggling with critical shortages of PPE, including face coverings. Not surprisingly, people now instructed to wear one are apt to take a cynical view.
The consequences of the failures to come clean are now coming home to roost. Ironically, even in the US and UK, most people are in principle in favour of wearing masks and even of making them compulsory. Yet in the UK, uniquely, this has not translated into behaviour: in an IPSOS Mori poll of 23 July, four months after the start of lockdown, just 28 per cent said they wore one, compared with double that proportion in France, Italy and the US. This is one reason why the UK now has another dubious Europe-beating qualification to add to its list: alongside the highest number of covid-related deaths and the worst hit economy, we are the slowest and most reluctant to return to work.
But if citizens now are slow to wear masks and resist going back to work, it’s largely not because they are bloody-minded or stupid. Inadequate leadership is squarely to blame.