Get Real About Masking: COVID Hypocrisy and Virtue Signaling on Campus

A scene from the third week of the academic year: I was sitting in the Honors Reserves section of McCabe, minding my own business, when someone else conspicuously decided not to mind theirs. I heard a loud “Excuse me!” from behind the shelves, and a woman (no names will be used in this piece), insisting that another student pull his mask up all the way over his nose, huffily proclaimed, “It’s not that hard!” This would have been merely annoying, not interesting, if the Swattie who demanded perfect mask discipline had not herself been eating lunch (itself against library rules) only an hour before. 

This self-appointed member of the mask police wasn’t only a hypocrite, she was a self-righteous hypocrite, which is why I think this incident is actually very helpful for thinking through the current state of COVID restrictions on campus, and about how they are far more about show than substance. After all, most people believe their own bulls–t to a degree; rare is the individual who consciously decides to do something which goes against their principles.

So what, then, is the bulls–t in question? It’s the woman in the library’s conception of the mask as a symbol of willingness to “fight COVID”— this point is crucial — rather than a tool for preventing the spread of COVID. Her anger wasn’t really directed at her fellow Swattie’s sloppy efforts at masking. It was that, in her mind, she had an excuse to take down her mask, while he didn’t.

The Swattie in McCabe’s thinking wasn’t only due to mistaken beliefs about how, exactly, COVID spreads. It spreads through aerosols that float throughout a given space, and it certainly doesn’t stop spreading when you’re eating lunch. Her anger was also due to an approach to masking as primarily a symbolic act, an approach totally disconnected from the mechanics of COVID transmission (again, COVID spreads whether or not you are eating), but utterly engrossed by policing the willingness of others to signal that they, too, are extremely concerned about COVID. 

The problem, however, is that this is also the approach of our college’s administration. 

This is the only approach that makes any sense of the college’s COVID policies. The administration has repeatedly stressed that they consult with a public health expert when making their policies, so surely they know that COVID spreads through aerosols, not particles; the former is far more contagious. They must also know that masks are at best only partially effective at containing the spread of COVID, as many studies have shown. The only large, randomized control-trial testing the effects of community surgical mask usage (which the majority of Swatties do not seem to be wearing) done to date found an 11% reduction in likelihood of contracting COVID when masks were promoted, which is good but hardly a game-changer. One also suspects that the Bangladeshi villagers in the study weren’t having unmasked sports practices in the Fieldhouse.  

Why else would masks be enforced strictly while getting food in Sharples, but come off for the far longer period of eating, talking, and laughing with your friends, packed in an enclosed space with hundreds of other students? Why else would masks be mandated in all campus buildings, except when that building is the Matchbox, occupied by masses of students exercising and breathing heavily (spraying floating aerosols all over the room)?

But the extremely serious tone taken in emails from deans to students indicates that they view mask-wearing as the thin line between a “safe” campus and COVID apocalypse. Last week, Dean Terhune lectured us all via email about the “flagrant disregard” of students who didn’t wear masks for the 30-foot distance from their dorm to the shower (what magical properties does Dean Terhune think a dorm shower has which enable it to stop COVID in its tracks to begin with?) and lecturing the campus about the need to “remain vigilant.” One has to conclude that our administration sees masking as in some ways absolutely vital.

They must know — there really is no way that they can’t know — that the way our campus actually functions includes putting students together in large groups, in indoor spaces like Sharples, the Matchbox, and classrooms, often unmasked.  If they really believed masking was important in a disease-transmission context, you would expect at least one email outlining how much more effective surgical masks are compared to the cloth masks that proliferate on campus.

Why, then, do administrators focus on masking — alongside testing and quarantine, which do matter quite a bit more — so much in their communications to students from their perches in Parrish? There are two non-contradictory answers. 

The first is that the Deans are much like the Swattie in McCabe — invested in masking as a symbol of vigilance and public spiritedness. They are morally scandalized by the prospect of a few students “chinstrapping it,” a response unrelated to the actual dangers it poses to the college community. This shows, to put it charitably, a worrying lack of connection to on-the-ground experience and scientific evidence on the part of the people running one of the most academically rigorous colleges in the country. 

The second is that the Deans are also, consciously or not, executing a deeply cynical strategy. By constantly lecturing students about their own failings while running a campus that by its very nature enables COVID to spread, they are giving themselves the ability to blame the spread of COVID on students while deflecting it from themselves. 

They, and some students, are engaged in a discourse based more on assigning moral status to individuals rather than “stopping” the spread of COVID. It might be because almost no one on campus is really, seriously, honest-to-God concerned about the risk of COVID. If you eat in Sharples, exercise in the Matchbox or the Ware Pool, play an indoor sport, go into Philadelphia, or really spend any large amount of time indoors wearing anything other than an N95 mask — and remember, even those masks are not a guarantee against COVID — you aren’t really that worried about being exposed to COVID.

Luckily, you shouldn’t be. The risks of COVID to vaccinated individuals are incredibly low. They are actually lower than the flu’s risks, even when factoring in Delta (which, according to experts, probably isn’t significantly more dangerous on a per-case basis than previous strains). 

Of course, those questions are entirely separate from the question of whether COVID can effectively spread in a semi-isolated community with near 100 percent rates of vaccination along with immunity from previous disease, the combination of which creates even stronger immunity than vaccines or previous infection alone. Early evidence from the return to campus seems to indicate that the virus won’t be spreading, with testing and quarantine proving enough to keep our case counts extremely low.

Finally, if Delta is anywhere near the upper end of estimations of infectiousness, then there is also no world in which you will not be exposed to COVID at least once in your lifetime. The disease is going to become endemic. A fully vaccinated community like Swarthmore may have herd immunity. Almost nowhere else in the world will for a very long time, perhaps ever. If you believe that the U.S. will eventually achieve vaccination rates similar to Swarthmore’s, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Those students who spent the first year or so of the pandemic practicing caution so that they could avoid ever being exposed to COVID (which was my approach until Delta came onto the scene) should either shut themselves in their rooms and eat Sharples takeout forever, or come to grips with the fact that they will at some point (possibly not at Swarthmore) face COVID. Luckily, being vaccinated means that you probably won’t even display symptoms

I think that a lot of Swatties have understandably failed to grasp this point, enveloped in the worry and fog of the past two years. If someone had told you a year ago that not only would the vaccines be almost 100 percent effective against death and severe disease, almost every person on campus would be vaccinated, but also that we still were mandating masks in classes, libraries, and dorms while severely restricting campus social life, I bet you would have called them crazy. You might have asked if there would be any progress that would result in restrictions relenting. You might not arrive at a conclusion that you like. 

11 thoughts on “Get Real About Masking: COVID Hypocrisy and Virtue Signaling on Campus

  • September 23, 2021 at 6:29 pm
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    Or you could just follow the rules outlined and wear a mask

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    • September 24, 2021 at 11:02 am
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      Or you could just read the article and think critically about whether or not it matters

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  • September 24, 2021 at 12:18 am
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    Publishing this piece was incredibly disingenuous and irresponsible on part of the Phoenix Editorial Board. Not only is this narrative rife with harmful misinformation, but it also spends excessive time critiquing broad cynicism on campus while writing in a distinctly more dangerous form thereof. There is no question that thorough analysis of college policy may be productive, but the writer seems to abandon the point nearly at the crux of their argument: it is, in fact, the public health experts with authoritative knowledge on communicable disease. The college’s policies—no matter the frustration they might induce—are doing much more for community health than whatever this vigilante masquerade intends to accomplish. I promise. This is a novel pandemic with ever changing conditions. Expecting some sort of radically pure solution is illogical and misinformed. Journalistic ethics and integrity are absolutely essential to any reputable publication. This piece, again, is not only irresponsible, but also displays an active abandonment of anyone outside of the Swarthmore community. Consider, perhaps, the hospitals in Delaware County overwhelmed with critical COVID-19 cases; the plethora faculty and staff with immunodeficient bodies and families; and, maybe, the countless infections that could be facilitated by students without, at least, an attempt at restrictions. I’ll reiterate the harm deeply engrained in this piece. The Swarthmore community and its neighbors are owed much more than indifference channeled through this alarming narrative of entitlement.

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  • September 27, 2021 at 8:50 pm
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    Incisive op ed, particularly the bit about admin offloading responsibility via the moralizing. Our team had a couple cases and was heavily contact traced due to school-provided transportation to team events (one of the few things traced on campus, as classroom proximity is not). They told us if we followed the rules we wouldn’t have been traced. This, after two of my symptomatic teammates were turned away from testing! The absolute lack of student input in almost any meaningful decision about campus life (alcohol, universal dorm access…fences?) leads to poor leadership, and all they can do is wag their fingers and blame the students, allowing them to cement this state of affairs by further infantilizing the student body.

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    • September 27, 2021 at 11:59 pm
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      As a quick caveat, I haven’t read the studies and can’t back up the science cited in this article. All I am certain of is that cases on campus have been handled fairly poorly due to oversight of calls for help from affected groups of students on campus. Covid safety is immensely important. I haven’t seen the science on long covid rates, but I’ve absolutely not interested in catching it when the long term effects are somewhat unknown.

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      • September 28, 2021 at 12:34 am
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        Yeah geez looking at this piece again it’s not great, the guy isn’t making particularly good or intellectually honest arguments, and it’s lowkey medical disinformation…as much as I respect the spirit of criticism of the administration, this really isn’t good.

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    • September 28, 2021 at 3:48 pm
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      I was having symptoms too this week and they fully just…wouldn’t let me get a test? I had to go to worth and get one of the rapid ones bc they just straight up didn’t want to test me.

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  • September 27, 2021 at 10:35 pm
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    Disappointed y’all didn’t really read the science on the Bangladeshi masking study; if you actually *read the paper* you find out that the masking intervention in that village only raised masking from 11% to 43%. This is not how the information is presented in the op-ed, and is not consistent with the conditions at Swarthmore College, where masking is *supposed* to be 100% (in academic buildings, where we are attempting to prevent spread to faculty members and non-dining and athletic staff…there is a distinction between spread among students and spread from students to faculty members or staff who may have unvaccinated children).

    Moreover, the suggestion that covid is not dangerous to vaccinated individuals is blatantly false. 95% effectiveness against hospitalization and death still yields millions of hospitalizations and deaths over the course of a pandemic. Furthermore, this op-ed ignores the presence of immunocompromised swatties.

    I think the biggest thing isn’t that “Covid isn’t dangerous, and the policies aren’t doing anything and are just about virtue-signaling (although covid virtue signaling is SO real) so why do we even have them,” it’s that “Covid is dangerous, the policies we have are doing something to prevent spread to faculty members and staff (but not really among the student body), but we as a student body are unwilling to actually prevent the spread of covid so instead we’re just going to *hope* that the students who do get breakthrough infections are lucky and claim, without real evidence, that the restrictions that are in place don’t actually do anything because it makes us feel better” As an immunocompromised student (who is also tired of restrictions!!) I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that my life is now like riding a roller coaster without a safety bar and that I just have to hope that I get through this OK. To argue anything else is somewhat disingenuous.

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  • September 28, 2021 at 3:45 pm
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    Ok but can we just start wearing masks as a habit during flu season anyway? I talked to a lot of unmasked people on campus this week and got very very sick (although not with COVID.) I don’t go into the city, I don’t eat in sharples or any other location on campus that frequented by students, faculty, and staff, and I don’t take my mask off indoors. I STILL was completely out of commission.

    Other countries already make it a habit to mask during the fall and winter, and it helps prevent things like this. As I learned the hard way this week, COVID isn’t the only sickness you can get on campus. Wearing your mask at all times helps keep others safe from a whole host of things so can we like…maybe stop? With the mask hot takes? You truly should be wearing it this from this time of year until like march regardless so it’s kind of a moot point.

    Reply

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