Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Masks save lives



Masks will save lives, president-elect Joe Biden declares on Twitter just days before he is sworn in as 46th President of the United States. More than 50,000 lives, according to experts, if Americans make an effort to cover their faces in public between now and April.

Main image: Man in mask (taiscaptures/Unsplash)

‘I know masks have become a partisan issue — but it’s a patriotic act,’ Biden explains. And the squabbling among respondents begins at once. There is no scientific evidence to prove that masks work, says one. What about the unmasked migrant caravan making its way this very moment from Honduras and Guatemala towards the Mexican-US border, asks another? It’s just a flu old man, claims a third.

It’s an infuriating conversation, akin to watching an ultra-slow-motion car crash from the comparative safety of my home in Australia. For even as detractors echo the baseless claims fomented by conspiracy theorists and the outgoing US president, infection and death rates in that country soar. What will it take, I wonder, to change these people’s minds? In an era as politically divisive as the one Americans (and Australians, for that matter) are living through, nothing is likely to convince detractors that COVID is an omnipresent threat — except perhaps the only thing with tangible currency in this whole blasted catastrophe: the visceral consequences of the pandemic itself. 

I needed no convincing of its peril when I received news just before Christmas that my cousin, aged 46, was in hospital in South Africa with complications resulting from COVID. He died the next day. Suddenly, this disease — from which we on this side of the world had been largely protected by determined leadership and a culture of compliance and a financially resourceful welfare system — had taken a malicious bite from my own extended family. It was a shock for which we were ill prepared, and a body blow for my aunt and uncle, who had lost their older son in a car crash 20 years earlier.

Days later, we heard that my London-based sister had tested positive for the virus. My cousin’s parents were by now COVID-positive too. While my sister gradually recovered and regained her sense of taste and smell, my uncle’s condition worsened; he was admitted to hospital in South Africa where he steadily declined and where, in a harrowing phone-call to my aunt less than two weeks into the New Year, he told her ‘I am dying’. The following afternoon his fear was realised. Just like that, my aunt had been robbed of her entire nuclear family unit, and of the chance to sit by her son’s and husband’s bedsides and say goodbye.

This personal family tragedy playing out over Christmas and New Year was experienced against the broader backdrop of insurrection on the world’s political stage — a revolt intimately bound up with the out-of-control pandemic and President Trump’s determination to capitalise on it in his effort to secure a second term in office. The west, it seemed, had been split decisively in two: on this side were those who believed in rationality and science, on that side were those who seemed to question the earth’s very orbit. The once-assured democratic conventions underpinning our political systems and the respect for human life they fundamentally espoused had been fractured, seemingly beyond repair. Trump had become a super-spreader not only (quite possibly) of COVID but — more dangerous by far — of the ideology guaranteed to amplify its contagion.


"But it’s the simplest of actions that embody society’s collective will to prevent those potential ‘50,000 deaths’, to pursue longevity for all; they are small steps, and yet they serve — especially in the case of people with pre-existing health conditions or advancing age — as an expression of solidarity and a compact to protect one another."


In a climate as hostile as this, the dialogue on social media platforms such as Twitter swiftly descend into invective; there seems little chance of arguing constructively with people radicalised into believing the COVID infection rates have been inflated and masks don’t work and the American election was stolen (and, make no mistake, there are many Australians among such diehard believers). No amount of evidence will convince them, nor appeal to their humanity. The only thing that will sway intractable dogmas, it seems, is a physical decline brought on by the virus itself.

But for many the conversion comes too late. While former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie called publically for Trump to encourage the wearing of masks after he contracted COVID himself during a function at the White House, Florida taxi driver Brian Lee Hitchens wasn’t so lucky. He lost his wife to the virus, and was hospitalised with it himself, after first believing conspiracy theories claiming the virus was a hoax or had to something to do with 5G.

‘And now I realise that coronavirus is definitely not fake,’ he told the BBC in an interview from his hospital bed in May last year. ‘It's out there and it's spreading.’

The steps taken in Australia to mitigate such infections — including lockdown, border closures and quarantine for returning travellers — have been instrumental in controlling the spread of the virus in this country. But it’s the simplest of actions that embody society’s collective will to prevent those potential ‘50,000 deaths’, to pursue longevity for all; they are small steps, and yet they serve — especially in the case of people with pre-existing health conditions or advancing age — as an expression of solidarity and a compact to protect one another. As former Governor Christie said, it becomes painfully apparent just how easy it is to prevent this disease when one is afflicted by it.

‘We are asked to wear cloth over our mouth and nose, wash our hands and avoid crowds,’ he wrote in the Wall Street Journal after his discharge from hospital.

‘Seldom has so little been asked for so much benefit.’



Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer. 

Main image: Main image: Man in mask (taiscaptures/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, COVID-19, Joe Biden, US, conspiracy theories



submit a comment

Existing comments

Why is this nonsense being peddled on Eureka Street?

Marilyn | 21 January 2021  

Catherine, thinking of you ,a “personal face” of the effects of the virus, as you mourn the loss of your cousin and uncle . Thankyou for reminding us of the importance of helping protect our fellow humans from catching this highly contagious virus in whatever way we can. There are many variables . We bring to the table different health conditions that make some of us more vulnerable . Could it be that even the fittest, youngest ,oldest,and even the most anti -authoritarian among us need to adhere to all reasonable recognised safety measures for the good of our neighbours. “He ain’t heavy ,he’s my brother /sister “was a pop song way back. Another song was”Try a little kindness”. These sentiments were expressed long before the current pandemic. Good catchy tunes too. Catherine I agree that the consequences of COVID 19 certainly has had catastrophic effects on millions of people around the world. Our preventative actions just may help in these times of uncertainty.

Celia | 22 January 2021  

Thank you for this article. I am sorry to read of your familial losses, Catherine. I hope common sense prevails and we take every possible action to protect people and our loved ones from COVID-19 infection, including wearing masks.

Barry Gittins | 22 January 2021  

Even if, in the future, it is shown that mask wearing had no benefit, how can it have hurt us to do so? A little inconvenience is all one could realistically describe it as

geoff | 22 January 2021  

Wearing face nappies make people sweat, when they sweat the face nappies get damp, when they get damp they cause the proliferation of normally existing bacteria and people get sick, for heaven's sake how about people with zero nursing or medical back ground stop peddling them, If you think they work try wearing a chicken wire suit to keep out mossies.

Marilyn Shepherd | 22 January 2021  

Quite a poignant personal report, but what we are witnessing from government in the UK, US under Trump, Australia and elsewhere is ideology and privilege in action. While corporate entities and wealthy individuals are happy to take socialist Keynesian state support and VIP treatment on e.g. travel or tax cuts, it's more than that. A meeting of radical right libertarian influence joined at the hip with eugenics or socio-Darwinism to claim masking up etc. as anathema to a functioning economy. This has been evidenced in Australia by a NewsCorp commentator opposing voluntary euthanasia in Victoria a few years ago to now encouraging euthanasia regarding the elderly...... Does not say much for the convictions of our libertarian elites in public life.

Andrew J. Smith | 23 January 2021  

It's the same duality as exists when doctors have to ensure the continuing life of an expectant mother and her foetus when each is seriously ill. One cannot be sacrificed for the other. The licence that is assumed in service of some supposed liberty not to wear a mask endangers both the person and the economy. The proper Covid response is to maintain both simultaneously.

roy chen yee | 23 January 2021  

Catherine the 8th comment was mine, published this morning (there are only 7 here at present) because it raised the US abortion issue and compared statistics of Covid with abortion? That hardly seems in keeping with free speech. Why was it removed after publication?

Francis Armstrong | 25 January 2021  

Similar Articles

Wikileaks, Assange and freedom of speech

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 28 January 2021

A serious discussion of freedom of speech must move beyond it as an individual right to see speech as communication. It will then consider all the relationships, personal and public, involved in communication. It presupposes that people share a common commitment to truth. Freedom of speech flows from that deeper human responsibility and freedom to seek truth.


Trump impeachment trial risks further division

  • Andrew Hamilton
  • 21 January 2021

I fear that as the process plays out, it will be seen by a divided nation to symbolise and embody the polarised politics of the previous years and of the incapacity of the organs of government to comprehend or address the causes of the anger and despair that foment division. It will hinder, not free, the new president.