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Please Advise! You’re Afraid of the Wrong Kind of Mask

‘What better symbol of modern political activity than the adoption of temporary guises?’

Steve Burgess 20 Feb

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Find his previous articles here.

[Editor’s note: Steve Burgess is an accredited spin doctor with a PhD in Centrifugal Rhetoric from the University of SASE, situated on the lovely campus of PO Box 7650, Cayman Islands. In this space he dispenses PR advice to politicians, the rich and famous, the troubled and well-heeled, the wealthy and gullible.]

Dear Dr. Steve,

I am very frightened by coronavirus. Are you taking all due precautions? Are you wearing a mask?



Dear Q,

Those face coverings are hard to come by these days. Dr. Steve rooted around in the Halloween box and found a Batman version, but that is unlikely to do much good.

Before continuing, Dr. Steve must stress that the coronavirus, a.k.a. Covid-19, is no laughing matter and that the death toll, in China at least, marks it as a significant threat. As a doctor he is naturally concerned. But as a particular sort of doctor, he is obviously concerned with his particular discipline, which is politics. Dr. Steve cannot help but notice that the global reaction to Covid-19 has resembled a crash course in political science.

It starts with those masks, now selling so fast that they are as rare as bottled water in the path of a hurricane. There is general agreement that, outside of a hospital setting, they are of as much use in preventing airborne viral transmission as that Batman mask would be. Yet people demand them. In addition to whatever false sense of reassurance they provide, it has been pointed out that wearing a mask is a sign of courtesy, an indication to your fellow SkyTrain passengers that you are doing your part and behaving responsibly.

The coronavirus is no respecter of masks. Never mind. It’s good politics. In fact, the appearance of meaningful action, however pointless, is the very essence of politics.

To launch a missile strike that kills Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and declare that you have made America safer; to set up a “war room” to fight for Alberta; to sign a Facebook petition; to take a powerful stand against yoga; whatever. Sound and fury may signify nothing, but you can’t campaign without them.

And what better symbol of modern political activity than the adoption of temporary guises? Learning to don masks of convenience is as essential to politics as it is to theatre — even, Dr. Steve ventures to say, becoming a sudden convert to the cause of either the Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs or the Wet’suwet’en elected band councils, depending on which group you happen to agree with. (While Dr. Steve salutes the sincerity of climate change activists, he suggests that any support of traditional rights that is contingent upon shared opposition to a pipeline may fairly be characterized as dubious.)

There is also the issue of political blame. It has been suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping could suffer a serious loss of credibility due to the toll of this disease. Historically, leaders in China have been blamed for natural disasters, which may indicate they have lost the “mandate of heaven.” Illogical? Sure. Completely in keeping with traditional western political practice? You bet.

For all his daily outrages, Donald Trump could well be re-elected if the economy holds up. This in spite of the fact that he has done everything in his blundering, blustering power to screw over the American economy completely — ultimately it has proved too big for even him to fuck up. Yet he and every other political leader, be they in the U.S., Canada, B.C. or wherever, will trumpet the performance of the economy if they can get away with it, boasting about their magical stewardship as though they were roosters whose crowing brought forth the sun.

Political leaders can pull levers here and there and sometimes cause real damage. But run the economy? If oil prices had soared in 2018, Rachel Notley would probably still be premier of Alberta. There is little that leaders can do to change the global economic tides, any more than they can win Stanley Cups. Yet studies have suggested that the success or failure of local sports teams can affect a leader’s political fortunes. (Premier John Horgan has yet to answer for the recent injury to Canucks forward Brock Boeser, but some of us will remember.) China is hardly the only nation that attaches dubious responsibilities to its leaders.

That illogic can shade into panic at ground level. Dr. Steve had a conversation with a shopkeeper last week who cautioned him against travel. Not just to China — in this case I believe the nation being discussed was Italy. It’s a big bad world ’o viruses out there was her opinion, and she had read a news story that claimed coronavirus was the bubonic plague come again. If so, there is a roughly one-in-four chance that you, dear reader, will soon suffer a ghastly death, be tossed into a huge pit, doused with kerosene and set aflame. Please consider leaving Dr. Steve your good silverware.

But most people are worried about Asia. The fact that Chinese restaurants are suffering staggering drops in business is depressing proof that panic and racial suspicion are never far from the surface of society. (Dr. Steve requests that if you are not going to finish that plate of noodles with beef and broccoli in black bean sauce, you kindly pass it in his direction.) Even if the occasional virus doesn’t remind us of that fact, there are usually canny, cynical politicians who will. Two plagues, coronavirus and fake news, have merged, and both are capable of the same corrosive effects.

Does it strike you as far-fetched that fear of the coronavirus might create a sort of laboratory of political behaviour? Then perhaps you might prefer a different laboratory theory. In a recent Fox News appearance, Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton seemed to imply that Covid-19 may have been created by the Chinese government in a secret bio-laboratory. Tinfoil hat theories aside, Dr. Steve is annoyed that after all his careful efforts to build a “virus-as-politics” metaphor, some Republican yahoo just plops himself down and blurts it out. Republicans spoil everything.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Politics, Coronavirus

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