The Drama of Masks on the Stage of the Pandemic

Kitanya Harrison
19 min readOct 24, 2023


Photo by visuals on Unsplash

As 2022 closed, thoughts of the possible collapse of human civilization plagued me. Even if things didn’t get quite that bad, it was clear that we were living through a sea change for which we were ill-prepared. I looked back over the pandemic and ruminated on how to write about it. One topic loomed large in my mind: coronavirus disease 19 (Covid-19) denialism.

There are different stripes of Covid-19 deniers, anti-vaxxers being the most familiar. However, as the pandemic progressed, a central point of controversy became masks. Bitter divisions emerged over this particular mitigation. As I observed the battle lines being drawn, I came to realize that an ideology can be formed around absolutely anything, including wearing a face covering during a pandemic to help stem the spread of a debilitating and deadly airborne disease.

Any and everything can and will be politicized. It is at this fulcrum that the forces of collapse multiply. If a critical mass of people can’t get on the same page about stopping a literal plague, that is a clear sign that the support beams of society, of civilization itself, are buckling.

Why were we advised or even compelled by mandates to wear masks during the early stages of the Covid-19 Pandemic? The disease Covid-19 is caused by serious acute respiratory disease coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2), which is spread when infected individuals breathe, cough, sneeze or similarly introduce the virus into the air around them. Others inhale the virus and become infected. The disease can be spread before the infected show symptoms, and asymptomatic infections are common. This means even people who appear perfectly healthy can be vectors for the virus. Because the virus is highly transmissible (and has evolved to become even more so), it was best to assume anyone could be infected, including yourself, and take the necessary steps to reduce transmission.

When everyone in an enclosed space is masked, the amount of virus in the air is significantly reduced, even if their masks are imperfect. Lower inhalation doses of SARS-Cov-2 result in better health outcomes, and masking is important harm reduction, in this regard. The better the quality of the masks, the lower the risks. Masks fitted with respirators are particularly effective, and when combined with air filtration or other techniques to remove the virus from the air, they can help almost eliminate the risk of infection. So long as there was widespread compliance, masking was a relatively minor inconvenience with a large public health upside.

How did masks become such a point of vicious contention? It’s hard to say because of all the moving parts, but the anti-vaccination and anti-Big Pharma beliefs that spread widely in the 2000s and 2010s provided the foundation for anti-masking to take root. These belief systems engendered a lack of trust in public health measures, particularly those that must be strictly enforced to be effective.

In order for vaccination programs to eliminate disease, nearly everyone must participate. The same goes for masking to prevent airborne diseases from spreading. However, large-scale cooperation is anathema in the highly individualized and atomized societies capitalism has created. I don’t think we know how to care for each other (and by extension ourselves) anymore.

The myth of the self-made rugged individual rejects many of the tenets of community and the responsibilities that come with it. "You are your brother’s keeper" is an old-fashioned notion from a time before the mass convenience of apps that can insulate you from human contact. In hindsight, it should have been clear that the ethos behind masking – that we owe a lasting and meaningful duty of care to each other – was going to go over like a lead balloon.

Unfortunately, the powers that be made an already heavy lift even more difficult. In the early days of the pandemic, personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply, and some public health officials and governments downplayed the role of masks in preventing the spread of the virus. Frightened people were buying up large quantities of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and other necessities. There was a legitimate concern that this instinct to hoard would extend to masks and other PPE and keep them out of the hands of frontline health workers. The result was confusing messaging around whether or not masks would help keep people safer (they do). This bolstered anti-mask sentiment that dovetailed with anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

In addition, while the acute phase of Covid-19 was proving deadly for some, others experienced only mild symptoms they shrugged off as being "just like a cold," and they couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. In the years since the pandemic began, thousands of studies and research papers have been published about Covid-19. It became clear rather quickly that the acute phase of Covid-19 is only the starting point of the disease in many patients. The virus lingers in the body where it causes organ damage that can lead to health issues as varied as diabetes, heart disease and dementia. These post-viral illnesses fall under the umbrella of "Long Covid" (an anticlimactic euphemism if there ever was one).

The use of the word "mild" to describe Covid-19 symptoms was also a mask. What it concealed was a ticking bomb inside the infected that may detonate, leaving in its wake serious illnesses like autoimmune diseases or even cancer (yes, SARS-Cov-2 has been shown to be oncogenic). "I was fine after I got Covid" was a mask too – one made of the arrogance of the healthy, who tuned out disability activists' warnings from as early as 2020 that the pandemic would be a mass disabling event.

Wearing a mask as PPE is often a sign of chronic illness or disability. The chronically ill and disabled are not "productive" and therefore are not valuable under the ethos of capitalism. As a result, they have been marked as disposable by society. We should have seen it coming that, as soon as they were given the chance, many people would dodge any association with disability and illness. The pandemic created uncomfortable friction between how people wanted to present themselves and how they might be perceived.

At some point during the pandemic, masks became more about the construction of identity than they were a commonsense public health mitigation. It was a shocking and confusing turn of events. It all began to make a kind of convoluted sense to me the more I thought about it, though. Physical masks play important cultural roles. They can signify the wearer is celebrating, mourning, practicing their spiritual beliefs, or otherwise participating in myriad vitally important social rituals. There is a communal understanding at work.

Our adornments convey meaning, and masks being worn as PPE are no different. My misstep in thinking was limiting this communal understanding to a processing of objective facts to arrive at a shared conclusion: we have to reduce the transmission of a dangerous virus, and masks will help us achieve that goal. This practical "just the facts, ma’am" analysis misunderstands that the Covid-19 Pandemic represents individual and societal existential crises. Who am I? Who are we? These are the questions we are being asked to confront and answer as our mortality looms large. The pandemic called us to really look at ourselves and our lives. Mirrors are often unkind, though. Masks, real and metaphorical, can shape our reflections into more palatable self-images.

We all lie to ourselves and each other. We hide. We obfuscate. We obscure. Whether it’s in a job interview or a first date, we often show up as a representative of our true self and select a carefully constructed mask for the occasion. "I am healthy and able to work and be productive" can be a necessary mask. Failure to play this role convincingly can lead to a life of spotty employment and poverty. The Covid-19 Pandemic has and will continue to put many under the uncomfortable heat of a glaring spotlight, as they try to nail the performance that proves their value to society. The pandemic is highlighting just how much the masks we choose to wear shape the stories we tell about ourselves and how they are received by their intended audience.

As I thought about all of this, my mind turned to the Jim Carrey led film, The Mask (1994). Carrey plays Stanley Ipkiss, a pushover living a drab existence as a bank clerk. Stanley doesn’t like himself and desperately wants to be more. He can’t until he stumbles across a mask created by the trickster Norse god, Loki. Whenever Stanley dons the mask he is transformed into The Mask, a confident, daring, green-faced figure with magical powers. He’s entertaining, fearless, and the star of the show. He comes alive, takes control of his destiny and gets the girl. Were these changes the product of an enchantment or had all that churning, frenetic energy been lurking inside Stanley all along?

We choose who to be, but becoming who we truly want to be often requires a powerful catalyst. Stanley’s mask provided that catalyst. It focused his fantasy of himself and allowed him to externalize it. The mask also obscured his identity as it revealed his inner depths and allowed his alter ego, The Mask, to emerge. Something much greater and more powerful than Stanley – the magic of a god – catalyzed his transformation. The pandemic created similar conditions for change. If all the world’s a stage, and we are merely players on it, the pandemic created a dramatic shift in setting.

“Yes, the show must go on, but not this one. It’s too depressing. Bring back the old one.”

The pandemic taught me that dramaturgy (the theory and practice of dramatic composition) was more a part of our everyday lives than I had considered. We perform for an audience because it keeps the gears of society churning smoothly. When the stakes are raised by a 100-year event like a pandemic, the machinery of society stutters, and the performance required to keep things moving becomes more extreme. The early days of the pandemic were filled with uncertainty about what guise to take.
The old show closed and a new, more somber one opened without much rehearsal. The main song and dance number was “Everything Will be Fine!” which was performed with an anxious determination. The most important element of the cast’s costumes was the surgical mask. It was a sign of self-preservation and communal care. The antagonists were anti-maskers jeering the heartfelt refrain, “We’ll Get Through This Together.”

Threaded through the narrative of this new show was the exaltation of inaction. Stay home and watch Netflix. That’s what doing your part looked like. When you did go out, you were instructed to wear a mask, physically distance yourself from others, and keep your hands clean. It wasn’t a particularly high bar, yet people couldn’t meet it for very long. In hindsight, I can see now that this plan of action was destined for failure, because it explicitly asked us to be Stanley Ipkiss and not The Mask. The genius of the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers is that their ideology allows its followers to feel like iconoclasts. When wearing a mask as PPE was in part about resisting the leadership of people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, maskers also had that incentive. When those plot points were resolved, the narrative struggles that often emerge in second acts began to show themselves. Still we pressed along, hoping for a clear resolution.

The show must go on. This theme of perseverance emerged as the pandemic spread. What would the curtain close on as the audience cheered, Stanley Ipkiss, bank clerk, obediently wearing his PPE or The Mask cutting it up on the dance floor? Spoiler: The Mask ends with Stanley throwing the mask into the harbor, but we all know which image plays better on Instagram. Stanley went back to his real life, but the catalyst of the magic of the mask allowed him to grow and change into a better version of himself. The catalyst of the pandemic demanded massive and lasting global change that no longer subjugated humanity to the callous whims of capital that make future pandemics more likely. Resisting that evolution required immense amounts of psychic energy.

Really being the protagonist is a hugely daunting role. Accepting that you’re a background character in your own life wounds the ego too much to be confronted. It is in this psychological logjam that the stories we tell ourselves falter and collapse under the weight of cognitive dissonance. The lasting change the pandemic demanded was the forging of a new world with new values – a frightening prospect. The unknown was rejected for the familiar. Yes, the show must go on, but not this one. It’s too depressing. Bring back the old one. Get the band back together and paper over this fast-emerging dystopia with nostalgia steeped in denial. Oh, and where’s the gift shop?

Retreating into the false safety of "before" was made possible by vaccines. While they all lowered the risk of serious illness or death in the acute phase of Covid-19, none of the shots prevented the transmission of SARS-Cov-2, and confusion soon arose around that point. The 20th century success of vaccines in eradicating many dangerous communicable diseases was a double-edged sword. This technology had made the world so safe that many of us had no clear personal reference for what mass illness looks like. On the one hand, this created room for anti-vaccination conspiracy theories to take root. On the other hand, these same conditions made others believe that vaccines were magic bullets. In a “There’s an app for that” world of previously unknown convenience, the Covid-19 vaccines were received as panacea.

Tell the people what they want to hear or tell them the truth. It’s an easy (if ethically and morally repellent) choice when the former allows leaders to sidestep the logistical juggernaut of keeping society running during a pandemic and pleases the wealthy and powerful. “Vax and relax” became a dangerous mantra, even though vaccinated people were still at risk of becoming infected by SARS-Cov-2 and spreading the virus to others. It was wise to keep mitigations like mask mandates in place. Even so, the seductive call of a safer past people wanted to return to grew louder. The cries of a stressful and uncomfortable present were harsh and grating by comparison. The pandemic had forced us into the uncomfortable position of considering how little control we sometimes have over the directions our lives take. People wanted to go back to the comfortable illusion that they were the ones pushing the buttons that keep their lives more or less on track.

In video games, non-playable characters (NPCs) fill the background, much like extras on a movie set. They are necessary for world-building and are important cogs in the machinery of the game. They help create the environment playable characters interact with. Without them to flesh out the setting and help with exposition, the storyline falls flat. It is one of life’s great paradoxes that most of us are simultaneously NPCs and undergoing the trials of what we see as our personal hero’s journey. Being the star of the show of your own life has become a muddled business, though. Social media and its precursor, reality TV, reinforce this paradox of the leading background player by creating a world where anyone can become famous. A Stanley Ipkiss is plucked from obscurity and given center stage to entertain us as The Mask. Everyone is constantly playing lottery numbers that might win them immense social capital.

Social capital — does that explain why it was so easy to convince billions of people to go along with removing their masks and exposing themselves to a deadly and disabling virus? Is it really as simple as that? It’s incredibly difficult to garner meaningful amounts of social capital behind a mask and in relative isolation. The (wannabe) influencers need to be seen in places the rest of us can’t access. The yuppies need to network. The petty tyrants in the supervisory and managerial classes need underlings to micromanage. Masks and other PPE were the most visible sign that these and other fonts of power might dry up. At some point during the early years of the pandemic, the powers that be put together that there was no need to enforce these hierarchies and structures. Stanley Ipkisses who believe it is their destiny to be The Mask (even only within their friendship group or workplace) will gladly do it for them. Yes, the masses were easy to bamboozle, but the bamboozlers are still to blame.

It was fascinating (and more than a bit frightening) to watch as public health mandates requiring the wearing of a mask to cover your nose and mouth during an airborne disease pandemic were derided as “Tyranny!” This wasn’t the biggest problem, though. The ship turned into the path of the iceberg and gathered speed when world leaders declared the pandemic “over” – facts to the contrary be damned. They wanted their “Mission Accomplished” moment to springboard them to re-election or otherwise cement their power. The waves of death and mass disablement simply weren’t discussed in polite circles anymore. Masks became faux pas – the uniform of those “living in fear and anxiety,” those who were “crying wolf.” It was quite something to watch the illogic of anti-masking go mainstream. I confess that it made me feel a bit mad. I was reminded that we often forget the most important lesson of the tale of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”: There really was a wolf to be kept away from the flock. There remains a wolf in Covid, and the lie being told isn’t one of a child seeking attention. It is one of adults who want to go back to the fantasy of a “normal” that doesn’t exist anymore.

“Masks put us in the wrong setting for the story we want to tell ourselves. Masks remind us that there might not be a happy ending.”

Normal. It’s an innocuous word that speaks to baselines, familiarity, and safety. People want to go back to pre-pandemic times, where it was easier to pretend everything was fine (it wasn’t). The pandemic has taught me that normalcy’s value is in the pretense of safety it provides. I was woefully naive about how vitally important the performance of that false veneer is to so many people or how easy it can be used to manipulate and exploit them. I especially didn’t expect public health officials to be out in front delivering the propaganda that sanitizing your hands was the chief way to protect yourself from an airborne virus. Then again, they wouldn’t even admit that SARS-Cov-2 is airborne.

I’m keenly aware of how lucky I was to have stumbled into being terminally online in the very specific way required to receive accurate, high-quality information about SARS-Cov-2, Covid-19, Long Covid, and other facets of the pandemic, including effective mitigation strategies. Almost a year off of social media immediately prior gave me a clear reference for comparison. I’d been mostly in the dark. When I returned to Twitter, I was blindsided by the shocking record of how our leaders jettisoned basic common sense and the fundamentals of public health. The overwhelming majority of people did not have that wakeup call soon enough to protect themselves from (re)infection.

I could never have predicted the wickedness of abandoning most of the world to a future of “living with Covid” with no meaningful mitigation strategy beyond vibes and capitalism. From a purely cynical standpoint, I thought the ruling class needed the rest of us alive to exploit. They had crunched the numbers badly, I realized. They were willing to accept and perhaps even welcome the deaths from the acute stage of Covid-19 (now limited by vaccines), but they grossly underestimated the catastrophe of multiple reinfections and Long Covid. Poor analysis or not, they needed us to buy into their worldview: that we should go back to a glorious normal that had kept their pockets lined, this time without so many pensioners and vulnerable people on the books. These grotesque calculations aren’t new. They’ve merely returned to being front and center. We are being forced by extraordinary circumstances to look at what we usually ignore. Most of us would rather not. People’s gazes lose focus. In the blur, they see something else, hence all the cognitive dissonance.

As we try to imagine the future, I suspect many people are toggling between contrasting visual representations of prosperous shining cities on hills and post-apocalyptic hellscapes that have been depicted in popular culture. A deadly plague that never ends and the precautions it requires are often features of dystopian fiction. Masks as PPE in these narratives are a powerful signifier that something has gone horribly, perhaps irretrievably wrong. They tell us that we can’t breathe the air around us safely, and most people don’t want to be reminded of that. Masks put us in the wrong setting for the story we want to tell ourselves. Masks remind us that there might not be a happy ending.

It’s not an accident that “I want to see your smile!” became a popular slogan for anti-masking propaganda. Coerced shows of contentment are features of the cover-ups fascism requires. When I think of the reasoning behind the wholesale discarding of masks and other mitigations in many countries, the phrase “the banality of evil” springs to mind. I don’t use that reference lightly. There is something fascist at work in the deluded chest beating about those with robust health and immunity (the strong) prevailing over illness to carry on the work of capitalism, while advocating for the elderly and disabled (the weak) to be thrown to the wolves to suffer and die. In this framework is the explicit acceptance and sometimes even the vaunting of a culling of the herd of humanity.

When the masks came off, we were in the stunning position of watching the shepherds (and some of the sheep!) welcome the wolf into the herd in a bizarre, macho dominance display. They wanted us all to race gladly into a standoff with a rapidly mutating, highly communicable, deadly virus that damages people’s organs, including their brains. The long-time anti-maskers cheered and mocked those who continued to mask. They still say, “I had it, and I was fine! Stop cowering in fear!” The only proper response is another question: “Are you absolutely sure you’re fine?”, accompanied by a recommendation to google “Long Covid.”

Part of so-called “mask fatigue” was the constant reminder of the existence of the pandemic. This twisted logic of avoidance became a factor in public health decision-making. In March of 2022, Rochelle Walensky, President Biden’s then-director of the Centers for Disease Control said, “ I just know that people are tired. The scarlet letter of the pandemic is the mask.” Really think about what it means that the highest public health official in the United States likened an effective public health measure to puritanical shaming for the sin of adultery. Wearing a mask became seen as a punishment, instead of participating in collective mitigation of life-threatening risks. Walensky and others effectively attached shame to wearing a mask as PPE, while the pandemic continued to rage. As a result, these protections were dropped even in health care settings, schools, government offices and other important institutions that people cannot avoid indefinitely the way they can a café or a nightclub.

In hindsight, it’s no wonder that the lie of “there’s no wolf out there anymore” went over like gangbusters with exhausted people, who were being worn ragged by the weight of trying to endure a once-in-a-century public health disaster with little to no material support and rapidly disappearing guidance from their governments. Walensky was right that people were tired. They wanted the pandemic to be over, and instead of telling them the hard truth that it wasn’t, Walensky and her ilk lied. I don’t blame anyone who believed them and ignored the niggle of suspicion in the back of their mind warning them that maybe they should continue masking along with other mitigations to be on the safe side.

No one can be an expert in everything. We have to defer our judgment to others to keep society running. It’s unfair to condemn anyone for believing the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization about the details of a pandemic. By the same token, I find it difficult to fault people who just gave up and couldn’t find the will to try to protect themselves and others any more, as the world was moving determinedly backwards to normal. We were abandoned. Trying desperately to pretend we weren’t was a predictable defense mechanism.

The average Joe isn’t to blame for dropping masking. There was a critical mass of people who were willing to do the right thing. They had to be told, though. They needed ethical leadership. Not everyone follows the right people on Twitter, who have been shouting themselves hoarse about the risks and the disastrous consequences of ignoring them. Not everyone can parse through the torrent of conflicting information and land on the right choice of whom to trust. Not everyone can afford the effective mitigations. Most people have never even heard of Long Covid. These failings are not their own but those of politicians, public health leaders, and journalists who refused to report the truth.

That moment in early 2022 when mask mandates and other mitigation strategies began toppling like dominos was a watershed moment in human history. When all those face masks went into the trash, so did the facade of community beyond interacting with The Markets. Capitalism had successfully captured everything. “Getting back to normal” really meant “getting back to spending” – and not just online. Have fun! Put the mask of your pre-pandemic self back on and record the moment "for the 'Gram!" Frequent your favorite restaurants and bars. Scream your lungs out singing at concerts. Head back to your old haunts and find new ones, but spend, free of the worry of the cost of infection. As you laugh, open-mouthed, with your friends and family, inhale their exhales and spend.

The hard truth is that, in many countries, the average person has been left to bear the long-term destructive risks of this virus alone. Another hard truth is that it’s impossible for individuals assessing their own risk tolerance to get us to the other side of this. This is the ultimate group project in a world full of individuals who are starring in their own show. The overwhelming majority of them have been propagandized into choosing the wrong mask and performing for the wrong audience. Sadly, the mask some chose unwittingly will be one of death.

This watershed moment was a revelation of the absolute supremacy of capitalist illogic in most of the world. It was a sharp delineation in the continuing battle over the values and ethics of a functional society. The disappointing result was that preventing the spread of an organ-damaging and immune-suppressing virus wasn’t as important as shareholder returns and profit margins.

Supranational corporate interests are driving the car that will careen into a ravine unless someone can take the wheel and slam on the brakes. That’s a tall ask when we’re encouraged at every turn to ignore the warning signs, like all the horrified screaming from those who have spotted the fast-approaching cliff’s edge. We’ve been led to believe that risk will bounce off of us like it did The Mask. It won’t. We have no god’s magic to shield us. Like Stanley Ipkiss before his transformation, we are vulnerable. That is nothing to shy away from. It is a necessary component of the human experience. Accepting this reality is the first step in figuring how we must protect ourselves from harm during the collapse of end-stage capitalism.

This essay is part of an upcoming collection with the working title Welcome to the Zombie Apocalypse: Notes on Collapse from the Covid-19 Pandemic. Members of my Patreon received early access.



Kitanya Harrison