It took America in the presidency of Donald Trump a little while to start its full-on assault on face masks.
In Australia, it was instant.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ mandatory mask order for Melburnians has been pilloried in newspapers and social media by right-wing culture warriors.
The politicisation of the face mask directive was swift, with politicians, commentators and online numpties not even waiting until Mr Andrews and Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton had finished their announcement before laying the boot in.
In a move straight from the Trump playbook, detailed expert advice on a health issue was politicised, put aside, mocked or downright ignored.
State opposition leader Michael O’Brien tweeted his confusion that masks were once deemed unnecessary, but now compulsory.
The fast-moving nature of this virus – whereby Victoria went from the poster child of the Australian response, to record-breaking cases – might have something to do with the fast-changing advice.
A week ago, Labor was still telling Victorians that masks were unnecessary.
Then masks became recommended.
Now masks will be compulsory.
Labor needs to support Victorians through this massive change by guaranteeing masks will be both available and affordable for all #springst
— Michael O'Brien (@michaelobrienmp) July 19, 2020
News Corp’s Andrew Bolt went further.
In a column published on the Herald Sun’s website just hours after Mr Andrews’ announcement, he asked: “On what medical basis is this necessary?”
The medical basis was “the latest advice from the chief health officer”, Mr Andrews said, in literally the second line of the public statement announcing the mask order on Sunday.
“By covering my face, I’m helping to keep you safe – and by covering your face, you’re helping to keep every Victorian safe,” Professor Sutton said.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he agreed with the order.
The Herald Sun shared Bolt’s column on social media with a tweet claiming the order was “not backed up by the science, and looks like more empty actions from a man who likes to look busy”.
It’s unclear what “the science” Bolt referred to shows, but the World Health Organisation says masks “should be used as part of a comprehensive strategy of measures to suppress transmission and save lives”, combined with hygiene and distancing measures; and that “medical masks can protect people wearing the mask from getting infected, as well as can prevent those who have symptoms from spreading them”.
Early advice on masks was unclear, but a lot of work has been done since then. The WHO and the US CDC have been recommending masks since June. They provide both a physical and a psychological barrier. https://t.co/nGwjvEyp9Y https://t.co/tBDsMwYnPz
— Prof. Peter Doherty (@ProfPCDoherty) July 20, 2020
Respected immunologist Professor Peter Doherty also jumped in.
A study published in The Lancet medical journal in June found “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection”.
I bet you look better in a mask than this!
And please wear one when you’re out. Please.
We will stop the spread of #CovidVic together, by each of us doing all we can to keep all of us safe.
We’re all in this together, Melbourne. pic.twitter.com/q3mzWg32mE
— Andrew Giles MP (@andrewjgiles) July 19, 2020
On the other end of the political spectrum, federal Labor MP Andrew Giles was one of the first elected members to support the mask order.
Former prime minister Kevin Rudd slammed the News Corp papers’ coverage, including one prominent headline above a picture of a mask-wearing Mr Andrews that suggested “COVID cover-up: Masks the new reality”.
Classic study of Murdoch method: For Victoria, Andrews is blamed personally on front page for officials mistakes. For Ruby Princess, no headline re Gladys or Dutton. Delegitimise Labor leaders; but a protection racket for Libs. pic.twitter.com/1jaN5uFEB6
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) July 20, 2020
Of course, the anti-mask politics didn’t stop with politicians and political commentators.
Former TV chef Pete Evans shared a post on Facebook of “free legal advice” that “was sent to me”, telling fans “Don’t wear a mask”.
Byron Bay musician Ziggy Alberts shared a series of Instagram Stories on the mask order, telling fans “all it does is strips Australians of their basic rights in what is supposed to be a free society”.
Most prominently, former UFC fighter Vik Grujic started an online firestorm with his tweet to Mr Andrews stating that “I will not comply. I will not bow down to you”.
“I’m a proud Australian. Born free,” Grujic tweeted, borrowing rhetoric from the United States by linking wearing masks with an erosion of personal freedoms.
“No dictator” he added in response to Mr Andrews’ order, later linking the Premier to “Marxists” – more talk taken from American conversations.
Talk of masks infringing freedoms, or being linked to ‘communism’, has been a common argument in the US, as conspiracy theorists share claims that the pandemic is overblown.
Masks have been a hot-button issue, proving a flashpoint for arguments and physical fights as people are refused entry to stores or public places for not covering their face.
Of course, not everyone thinks it’s a freedom issue.
Dear people who think having to wear a mask is robbing you of your “basic rights”.
You have clearly never experienced an actual infringement of your basic rights.
Just wear a mask. Don’t worry, you can still whisper your free-speech from beneath it.
— Gordi (@GordiMusic) July 19, 2020