Insights (Essays)

Insights (Essays) December 2020

Anti-Mask Protests and Racism: What Is the Link?

Umair Majid, Judy Truong, Aghna Wasim and Matthew Truong

 Mask

Anti-Mask Sentiments and Racism

In the past several months, we have heard, experienced or read about individuals who refuse to wear a mask and direct racist comments toward customers and members of staff in public places. One specific incident caught the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: a man and a woman who refused to wear a mask at a T&T supermarket were openly discriminating against staff and making insensitive remarks about their home countries (Karamali 2020). In these situations, we see that racism and discrimination are part of the rhetoric inherent in anti-mask sentiments. However, anti-mask sentiments remain a somewhat novel phenomenon that have only exploded recently in the context of widespread restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. By analyzing instances of anti-mask sentiments detailed in news reports in Canada, we sought to understand their interplay with racism or discrimination.

What Do News Reports Say?

Six out of 77 Canadian news reports on anti-mask topics explicitly detailed instances of racism. Examples of racism included instances of anti-maskers being particularly disrespectful toward immigrants and individuals perceived as “outsiders,” particularly those with an Asian heritage (CBC News 2020; DeClerq 2020a; DeClerq 2020b). The underlying tone and content of their racist remarks was inappropriate, presumptive, aggressive and sometimes expletive. People with anti-mask sentiments frequently associated the spread of COVID-19 with people who have an Asian heritage, and are from East Asian countries (e.g., “Go back to China,”) (Fox 2020). People also closely associated the spread of COVID-19 with communism that they used as a pretense for discrimination against individuals from an Asian background (e.g., “The Communist Virus”) (Rodrigues 2020). While there was an overwhelming focus on people who looked “Asian,” anti-mask sentiments were also directed to other individuals including Black people, Indigenous people or persons of colour (Karamali 2020). These reports highlight the link between anti-mask sentiments and racism and discrimination, leading to the question: Is there is a common denominator that is driving individuals to express both anti-mask and racist sentiments? Based on the news reports, we believe that underlying issues of freedom and liberty that encourage anti-mask sentiments are also responsible for promoting racism and discrimination against minorities. 

Freedom and Liberty

Certain groups have always voiced the importance of freedom and liberty when widespread policy interventions are introduced. We have seen the emphasis on freedom in the context of vaccination whereby individuals choose to refuse routine vaccination despite the rise of a disease on a global scale (Majid and Ahmad 2020). Similar anti-mask sentiments were found during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 when perceived threats to personal freedom and liberties were primary arguments that fuelled the resistance against public health policies encouraging mask-wearing (Giuliani-Hoffman 2020). Individuals who hold anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown sentiments often prioritize their freedom over other considerations such as public health and safety.

By prioritizing their freedom over everything else, individuals with anti-mask sentiments tend not to realize the impact of their decisions to forego masks or vaccines on their own health, and in turn, the health and safety of others. Scientific evidence that is meant to guide us in uncertain situations is considered an unimportant factor in decision-making by these individuals and as such, disregarded. Instead, such individuals primarily make decisions based on previous experiences and affiliations with groups that are often rooted in an “anti-medicine” paradigm of thinking. The tendency for anti-maskers to prioritize individual choice may compromise our public health initiatives because it weakens the widespread promotion of public, population and community health, particularly in critical contexts such as the COVID-19 pandemic wherein the health of the general public is dependent upon the support and uptake of preventive measures by various communities. Although some individuals may recognize that their decisions affect other people, they might still prioritize their freedom based on a belief that their choice comes first. 

A discussion about freedom is not complete without mentioning mistrust in institutions and experts. The anti-mask movement has escalated even further due to an ever-increasing mistrust in institutions and experts who, in our view, have taken actions to cause this unrest in the first place. Part of this increasing public mistrust may be due to the incoherent and inaccessible ways in which their messaging has been conveyed to the public. Our current approach to decision-making and policymaking is awkward, inappropriate and unintelligible to a multitude of groups. Despite vocalizing our support for public and patient engagement, we continue to advance presumptive and jargon-heavy approaches that contradict the fundamentals of such an engagement. We forget to acknowledge that genuine engagement brings a diversity of opinions, some of which may be contrary to our paradigms of thinking and may thus be a source of intense discomfort. However, this is what engagement truly is supposed to be. Unfortunately, we have resorted to our old, traditional ways, leaving little room to re-envision and re-evaluate our approach toward engaging people who hold anti-mask, anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown sentiments. Regardless of how discomforting it may be, we need patience and humility to interact with individuals who express very different concerns about masks, health and vaccines as well as those who use these situations as a pretense to express racism and discrimination. 

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there is a link between individuals who express anti-mask sentiments and those who practise racism and discrimination. The issue appears to stem from such individuals’ prioritizing their freedom over the public health goals of governments. Furthermore, mistrust in institutions and experts – that primarily comes from our lack of meaningful engagement in decision-making – has furthered anti-mask sentiments leading to long-term, inadvertent effects on our public health initiatives.

About the Author(s)

Umair Majid, BSc, MSc, Med, PhD (c), is an instructor at McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, and a global health systems consultant (strengthening organizational and system capacity/preparedness for rapid change). Follow him on Twitter @majiduma. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/umair-majid/

Judy Truong, BSc, MSc, is a research scientist at Acorn Biolabs and MaRS Centre for Impacting Investing in Toronto, ON. LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/judy-truong-70baab197/

Aghna Wasim is a BSc graduate from the University of Toronto in Toronto, ON.

Matthew Truong is an MD candidate at the University of Toronto in Toronto, ON.

References

CBC News. 2020. Kingston Café Owner Enraged by Racist Anti-Mask Diatribe. Retrieved October 14, 2020. CBC.<https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/kingston-coffee-shop-mask-racism-1.5637140>.

DeClerq, K. 2020a. Prime Minister Weighs in on Video of Racist, Anti-Mask Rant at Toronto Supermarket. CTV News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/prime-minister-weighs-in-on-video-of-racist-anti-mask-rant-at-toronto-supermarket-1.5019056>.

DeClerq, K. 2020b. Police Issue Summons in Connection with Racist, Anti-Mask Rant at Toronto Supermarket. CTV News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/police-issue-summons-in-connection-with-racist-anti-mask-rant-at-toronto-supermarket-1.5026023>.

Fox, C. 2020. Police Charge Man in Connection with Racist, Anti-Mask Rant at Mississauga Supermarket. CTV News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://toronto.ctvnews.ca/police-charge-man-in-connection-with-racist-anti-mask-rant-at-mississauga-supermarket-1.5026907>.

Giuliani-Hoffman, F. 2020. ‘Mask slackers’ Existed during the 1918 Flu Pandemic, too. CTV News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/mask-slackers-existed-during-the-1918-flu-pandemic-too-1.5066330>.

Karamali, K. 2020. Police Investigating After Racist, Anti-Mask Tirade at Mississauga Supermarket Goes Viral. Global News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://globalnews.ca/news/7155891/racist-anti-mask-viral-video-mississauga/>.

Majid, U. and M. Ahmad. 2020. The Factors that Promote Vaccine Hesitancy, Rejection, or Delay in Parents. Qualitative Health Research 30(11): 1762–76. doi: 10.1177/1049732320933863.

Rodrigues, G. 2020. Man at the Centre of Racist, Anti-Mask Tirade at Mississauga Supermarket Turns Himself in. Global News. Retrieved October 14, 2020. <https://globalnews.ca/news/7184491/man-racist-anti-mask-mississauga-supermarket-charged/>. 

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