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Commentary: Society makes silent bargains

How far should mask mandates go?
Nelson Chris web
Chris Nelson is a syndicated columnist. File photo

Make masks mandatory to hide from COVID-19 and prepare to wear them for the rest of your life.

How could it be otherwise? Once government dictates such a measure it will never entirely disown it, even when this current threat passes.

We’ll be cast adrift in a strange Catch-22 world: one Franz Kafka would have recognized.

For example, imagine infections in our province decrease after a month of mandatory public mask wearing, perhaps even falling to zero. Sorry, that won’t end their usage.

The argument will then be wearing such masks halted the virus’s spread therefore it’s obvious we must continue to prevent any recurrence.

Oh, and if the opposite occurs and numbers spike, then it’s time to double down - increasing fines and surveillance because not enough people are complying or, heaven help us, introducing face shields as the logical next step.

Because, as Cat Stevens informed us half a century ago, the first cut is the deepest. Once we accept the removal of a further slice of personal liberty - under the anaesthesia of saving lives - we won’t get it back. That’s how the fear game’s played.

Twenty years on we still automatically hand over water bottles at airport security, never thinking if this weird action is in any way necessary today. Ivan Pavlov, patron saint of hungry canines everywhere, would recognize our instinctive reaction.

Don’t believe me? You still imagine government and health honchos will banish the mask mandate forever, once the current situation improves?

Well, the problem is that permanently removing such strictures is an act of commission, rather than of omission, by not imposing them in the first place. And acts of commission – if something nasty subsequently happens – have much more severe consequences for any politician or official ‘committing’ them.

So, even if COVID-19 succumbs to some yet-to-be discovered vaccine or, more likely, enough folk catch it to slow then finally stop the spread, don’t imagine that’s the last we’ll see of mandated masks.

Hey, what about the annual flu season, which regularly kills many Albertans? If we did it for COVID then how can we ignore that deadly virus?

Once precedent is set, officials and politicians are subsequently left open to future accusations they let people die through sheer heartlessness or stupidity, in not reinstating a previously mandated measure.

“You made mask wearing mandatory for COVID but you let Aunt Mable die from the flu by refusing to do the same. How could you, Premier Kenney?”

Ignite a suitable social media campaign and, within 72 hours, the premier will be yet again announcing: Masks Are Us.

So by all means let’s urge Albertans to wear masks: give them out free, run public advisory ads, let businesses and institutions require them for entry if they want and engage in all moral-signalling possible. But don’t make them mandatory for everyone the moment they leave the house.

And yes, even admit refusing to order such usage might result in more deaths – that’s a hard ask for anyone, especially those relying on future votes for a living.

But there are many things we humans do – drive at more than 20 kilometres per hour, for example – that increase odds of us dying. Society makes silent bargains; accepting convenience, enjoyment and freedom come with a cost. Sometimes that cost is our own life.

Still, the pressure builds. So it’s likely the mandated public mask will come. That’s how things work these days.

Yes, a world of people standing six feet apart, wearing masks beneath face shields, whilst endlessly rubbing hand sanitizer into their palms. Even George Orwell didn’t imagine things could descend that far.

Chris Nelson is a syndicated columnist.