To Mask or Not to Mask

How people approach a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is rooted in their worldview.

Dave Smith Headshot


The Great Pandemic of 2020—or the Coronavirus Debacle depending on your point of view—has certainly done something most national crises do not do, it has divided the nation even further.

One of the glaring divisions we see today is how the public and our leaders react to the news and other sources of information about the progress of the virus. Reports that quarantining whole populations had "flattened the curve" of the rate of transmission did not translate to, "Great! Time to get out there and start living again." Politicians, the media, and a major portion of the population declared that the new goal was to quarantine until "safe." "Safe" is being defined as we have a vaccine, the disease is now defunct, and no one will die.

Sadly, this myopic view of risk ignores all the other risks life presents and the fact that millions of people die every year in the United States from myriad causes, including now COVID-19.

How you react to each bit of advice, updates, and mandates is a reflection of your worldview and how you deal with risk. First of all, we need to differentiate risk into two categories:

Voluntary Risk – the kind you chose to take on and for which each of us has a high tolerance, and Involuntary Risk—the kind thrust upon you.

No one chose to have the novel coronavirus, at least I don't think so, but how you think we should deal with the threat says something about your very view of nature.

In "Risk and Culture," Aaron Wildavsky argues that those who see the world as detached from man and unpredictable are "fatalists" who essentially disengage from the risk. They continue to live not seeking to take any real measures, or implementing regulations to solve the problem. The "individualists" see nature as benign and look to take control, in their own way, to deal with their own risk, and they do not want regulation or oversight. Next, we have the view that nature is both perverse and tolerant if we control ourselves through regulation and enforcement; these are the "hierarchists" and, as the name implies, they see hierarchy and bureaucracy as the solutions to nature's risks. They believe "experts" should mandate our actions, and we should be forced to follow. Finally, we have the "egalitarians" who believe nature needs to be protected from man and all people should act as equals taking collective action, but not with government regulation. This group is the one that includes most environmental activist groups, and it is the one that during this crisis encourages everyone to put on a mask.

The issue for crime fighters is we are part of the hierarchy of government, but are also usually individualists that balk at undue regulation in their personal lives or the lives of others. This creates a natural friction within our community and ourselves. What is reasonable to us is not what the hierarchical experts want, and some have lost their jobs due to speaking out… remember, we work within the bureaucracy and that puts tough constraints on our personal rights.

If we can put the various responses from people throughout the country into perspective, and try to understand their frames of reference, we will improve our ability to communicate and debate ideas. We must recognize the natural tension most of us feel when trying to decide if regulatory and legislative actions are wise or not.

As an individualist, for instance, I believe it is our responsibility to learn the lessons of the pandemic and see it as a forewarning for our profession in the future. Wellness programs have got to become a priority in our profession; fitness, weight control, and disease mitigation must all become priorities when we examine our own mortality, and I believe the hierarchists among us will soon be creating fitness standards for law enforcement.

Maybe that is the way mankind has always solved these problems in the past, with each group bringing their own perspective to the crisis… except for one. There is a fifth group, dead center in the charts between all the others; these are the complacent ones known as the "hermits." They don't know and don't care, and bring nothing to the table. Don't be a Hermit.

Dave Smith is an internationally recognized law enforcement trainer and is the creator of "JD Buck Savage." You can follow Buck on Twitter at @thebucksavage.

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Dave Smith Headshot
Officer (Ret.)
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