Fearing a Fear of Germs
How Did the Surgical Mask Transform from a Sign of Bigotry to a Sign of Care?
Whenever I see a medical face mask today, I immediately think of a photograph on the cover of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority Report from July 1983. The cover depicts a white family—father, mother, and two children—all wearing masks. The headline reads “Homosexual Diseases Threaten American Families.” While it wouldn’t be hard to imagine a “Chinese Viruses Threaten American Families” graphic produced today, the medical masks accompanying the xenophobic sentiment would be. Members of today’s libertarian Right are more likely to take a chainsaw to a surgical mask, viewing them as symbols of an alarming expansion of government power and scientific expertise, than to wear one, even to allay a fear of “foreign” germs.
I’ve studied and written about the AIDS crisis in North America and I’ve tried consciously not to superimpose pandemics of the past onto either HIV/AIDS or COVID-19. This should be straightforward. I don’t think of history as being necessarily edifying or as offering up clear lessons for the present. The two pandemics don’t share the striking parallels that other disease comparisons elicit: Coronavirus is not always physically disfiguring as AIDS often was, it does not elicit disgust in its beholders as AIDS sometimes could, and it is not freighted with sexual or “lifestyle” transmission.
And yet, this image of medical masks as symbols of homophobia haunts me. They are affixed so firmly in my mind to the Christian Right, and a cynical deployment of a dystopian image that places gay people as being outside of American citizenship, that it is mind-boggling for me to see masks as an iconic part of a material culture of Black Lives Matters protests today.
Maybe every generation develops its own relationship to, and ideas about, germs and contagion that limits our ability to understand contemporary medical threats in new ways. Perhaps we are all always “thinking with the banisters of the past,” as Hannah Arendt put it, and not taking reality on its own terms. Maybe my generation has been so shaped by AIDS, or more accurately, public health responses that aimed to quell fears about contagion and the attendant prejudices that often surrounded them, that I can’t help but see a fear of germs as an inherent act of discrimination and intolerance. I am predisposed to be wary of new habits and ways of being that will develop in the face of novel diseases.
Maybe every generation develops its own relationship to and ideas about germs and contagion.
In her book, The Gospel of Germs, historian of medicine Nancy Tomes described how public health campaigns in the early 20th century that encouraged people to think of hidden worlds of germs on surfaces and in the air instilled a fear of contagion in North Americans. Thanks to these efforts, people saw danger lurking in household surfaces, dirt, and flies, as well as dust and saliva. When HIV/AIDS emerged, this approach to health and safety contributed to stigma and anxiety.
During the early years of the AIDS crisis, especially when transmission was poorly understood, basic acts of care were fraught with a fear of contamination. Families and friends who looked after a loved one with AIDS felt tremendous distress at having to wear masks, don protective gowns and gloves, and place these in bags labeled “infectious waste” after visiting their loved ones in isolation zones in hospitals.
As knowledge of AIDS transmission improved, medical practitioners attempted to reverse some of those fears of contagion to adjust to the reality of this new virus. Public health advocates in the mid- and late 1980s needed to reframe the danger from germs. The misinformation on display in the Moral Majority Report’s cover image necessitated a response about the relative difficulty of HIV transmission. “None of These Will Give You AIDS,” proclaimed a New York state public health poster in 1987, showing a toilet, a dinner table, a door knob, and a handshake. This kind of message tried to keep a sense of visceral disgust at bay, a disgust that was already a vital part of homophobia and that made slogans like “homosexual diseases” possible.
Coronavirus does not lend itself to the same kind of moralizing that AIDS did. Yet I wonder if we have already reached the point that coronavirus public health measures, like those employed in the early days of HIV/AIDS, will foster a sense of guardedness and suspicion, a feeling that everyone is a potential bearer of disease, even a sense of disgust at the diseased person. We are already returning to a wariness of surfaces, materials, air droplets, particles, “plumes of breath,” and the personal space surrounding a person.
Coronavirus does not lend itself to the same kind of moralizing that AIDS did.
These days, a lot of us are thinking about what Giorgio Agamben called political “states of exception,” emergency situations that allow for exceptional measures to develop that can get extended even after the “wartime” situation is resolved. Thinkers at all points on the ideological spectrum have pondered the value of curtailing individual liberties given our new reality, especially regarding contact tracing and quarantines. The Christian/New Right advocated for precisely these measures during the AIDS crisis. In 1986, even a libertarian conservative in the vein of William F. Buckley famously called for everyone with AIDS to receive tattoos on their forearms or buttocks so that they could be identified. He claimed this was to protect other homosexuals. These measures were homophobic and bigoted then, but do they now seem like simply a more prurient or extreme form of contact tracing or the proposed “immunity passport”?
Coronavirus may yet force us to think of something beyond standard public health responses: identification of those with disease, epidemiology, or quarantine. Fears of COVID-19 could displace a more relaxed, post–AIDS-era idea of germs and bestow a new legacy on today’s young people about the risks associated with personal space, physicality, intimate contact, gestures of care, and even more abstractly, the public sphere, the atmosphere, and the unseen. Less abstractly, COVID-19 might shape the material culture of the medical mask beyond their political valences, maybe simply as gestures of solidarity with the sick.
Heather Murray is associate professor of history at the University of Ottawa.
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