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Is Covid-19 our new religion, and the face mask its cross?

Helen Buyniski
Helen Buyniski

is an American journalist and political commentator at RT. Follow her on Twitter @velocirapture23

is an American journalist and political commentator at RT. Follow her on Twitter @velocirapture23

Is Covid-19 our new religion, and the face mask its cross?
As fear and uncertainty swirl around the Covid-19 epidemic, an invisible evil potentially lurking anywhere, protective measures like masks have taken on a talismanic quality, and a religion built on shaming ‘heretics’ is growing.

Unable to see the microscopic “enemy” and bereft of a scientifically proven cure, those seeking deliverance from the new coronavirus are left with only their faith that the measures prescribed by health experts –our scientific priest class– will work to keep it at bay. That’s all well and good until those who buck the new orthodoxy are scapegoated for the plague.

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Face masks –the visual symbol of the Covid19 epidemic– have acquired the status of religious fetish for those concerned over the many unknowns about the virus (the reliability of testing, whether ‘recovered’ patients are really cured for good, and the many other question marks that come with a new disease). In a sea of uncertainty, the face mask is one constant that can be relied upon.

But, while a growing number of locations have adopted orders mandating face coverings in crowded places or where social distancing is impossible, it’s hard not to notice those individuals so devoted to the mask-wearing ritual that they sport the face-coverings in their own cars, with the windows rolled up, or when strolling through epidemic-emptied streets. 

Poor messaging is partly to blame – the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly changed its narrative on who should wear masks, from “sick people” to “only healthcare workers” to “everyone.” But even flimsy surgical masks that offer little to no protection from the coronavirus have taken on a talismanic quality, in the way that garlic and a cross were supposed to ward off vampires in times past. One might feel a little silly driving around with a mask on (or stringing a clove of garlic above one’s window), but better safe than sorry.

Even the simplest, most scientifically-sound measures like hand-washing have taken on a ritualistic cast, as the virus-fearing infuse them with terrified zeal. How else to explain the popularity of the dozens of “hand-washing apps” available for smartphones but that the shock of the epidemic has caused us to question that which we once took for granted? Just as peasants of a previous era might have been spooked into regular church attendance by the specter of the Black Death, their descendants pore over videos of hand-washing on YouTube, determined to live a “cleaner” life.

There’s nothing wrong with clinging to ritual in a time of uncertainty, especially rituals like hand-washing and wearing masks that come highly recommended by health agencies and have previously been shown to slow the spread of contagion.  

However, the science is far from settled on the effectiveness of social distancing and sweeping economic shutdowns. While some experts swear they’ll save us from the virus, the World Economic Forum has called the stay-at-home orders that have confined more than half the world’s population to their homes “the world’s biggest psychological experiment,” warning “we will pay the price” in a secondary mental-illness epidemic. Loneliness and vitamin D deficiency –two conditions exacerbated by prolonged indoor quarantine– lower the immunity of even healthy people, rendering them more susceptible to the same virus the lockdowns are supposed to protect them from.

Mentioning any of this risks triggering the virus-fearing zealots. News outlets overflow with stories of “virus deniers” punished for their heresy with a dose of Covid-19 – from rogue “spring breakers” to social-media showoffs boasting about their rule-breaking. Public shaming of the ‘Covidiots’ who refuse to sit down, shut up, and stay indoors has become wildly popular on social media, where some even argue that these people deserve to get sick and die for contradicting prevailing orthodoxy. 

John McDaniel, an Ohio man who criticized his governor for shutting down the state, reportedly died earlier this week of coronavirus only for social media mobs to dance on his grave and use his death to attack other “doubters” (including –of course– US President Donald Trump, whose insufficient reverence at the altar of the virus has Covid-19 zealots frothing with rage). 

CNN’s Jake Tapper claimed that “practically every day” he read about a corona doubter succumbing to the virus, blaming conservative media and politicians for their deaths – heresy, apparently, is as contagious as the virus. 

Some outlets have even encouraged Covid-19 zealots not to wait for the virus to smite heretics. The Daily Mail cheered on an elderly woman who threatened to “kick the ass” of a stranger for calling the pandemic a “hoax.” Populations are being trained to ritually shame and even snitch on their neighbors, with dedicated tip-lines being set up from New Zealand to Washington.

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When deviation from the so-called “new normal” is punishable by bodily harm or even death, society has started down a slippery slope it won’t climb back up easily. The medieval inquisition lasted centuries and killed thousands, and those who think society has moved beyond such irrational groupthink-based barbarity have never been the victim of a social media pile-on. 

Religious zealotry understandably flourishes in times of uncertainty, and the Age of Coronavirus is no different. But can we skip the witch burnings this time around, please?

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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