The spread of Covid-19 has seriously threatened not only national security but also human security worldwide. One of the main reasons the virus spreads rapidly is airborne transmission. The use of face coverings is a safety measure to combat this threat and protect society from the virus. By comparing the UK and US approaches to face coverage, we examine the importance of various components within securitization theory. While this measure creates greater health security, it can create other threats to human security, such as: B. an increase in crime and social polarization. Nonetheless, face coverings can provide airborne security if governance within society is strengthened and citizens assume responsibility. When individuals believe they may be involved in the problem and therefore want security from the action, face covering can be a viable means of achieving greater security.
The use of face coverings as a safety measure
The rapid spread of Covid-19 has been attributed to transmission via droplets from the nose or mouth. The virus spreads because a person is exposed to these droplets less than two meters away. Research has also shown that transmission can take place over a distance of more than two meters in closed and less ventilated rooms. This has been called airborne transmission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and these droplets can “float in the air for great distances and time”. As a result, wearing a face covering can reduce exposure to these respiratory particles, which improves the safety of the individual and the community they belong to. For this reason, face masks have been recommended as an effective “non-pharmaceutical intervention” that can help reduce transmission. These covers also reduce the risk of transmission from people who do not know they are carrying the virus. The possibility of asymptomatic transmission is a major threat to health security.  As a result, the universal use of face coverings is a measure to protect human safety. They are seen as a preventive measure that can be widely enforced by both carriers and non-carriers of the virus at low cost.
The securitization theory
The securitization theory can be used to investigate why certain issues such as airborne transmission can be politicized and thus classified as a security threat. This theory, which was cited by the Copenhagen school theorists Buzan and Waever, established three components consisting of the “securitization actor, the referenced subject or object and / or the audience”. Balzacq believes that the role of the securitization actor is to invest the reference asset in the idea that there is a threat of an unprecedented nature that therefore requires immediate action. This can lead to the submission of a “bespoke policy” using extreme measures. The theory draws attention to the discursive nature of securitization and regards it as an “intersubjective representation” of topics. The construction of a problem as a security threat is considered important in order to legitimize the use of security measures to deal with this problem. Balzacq notes that securitization theory links the way threats are confronted with the perception of threats among political actors. The use of constructivism in this theory shows that security is indeed possible when the securitizing actor effectively depicts a problem as being caused or has the potential to cause uncertainty.
In order for face coverings to be effectively enforced, the governing body of a nation must discursively present the measure as a measure in which every citizen can offer and benefit from the increased security. Government can also promote the idea that the individual will question the “successful provision of security” if this measure is not followed. This is related to Foucault’s ascribed theory of “governance”, which prescribes that responsibility can be transferred from government to the individual. This suggests that through individuals acting from now on, the government can act remotely to make society safer. This also relates to the concept of ‘responsibility’, which calls on the individual to take responsibility and take care of himself. Within the Covid-19 pandemic, the risk of transmission comes from every individual. For this reason, some governments have urged their citizens to take responsibility for the security of the entire community.
The idea of investing individuals in a security threat was explored by Jarvis and Lister, who referred to the concept of “stakeholder security”. Her work focuses on attempts by a government to include “ordinary people” in security modes in order to combat a security threat from a lower level. In this way, governments can pervade governance from the bottom up, encourage accountability, and make the individual a stakeholder in the security measure. This is suggested by Cheng et al. who state that face covering signifies the transition from “self-protection to altruism” and thus becomes a “symbol of social solidarity”. This confirms the notion that the securitizing actor can theoretically invest the public in the measure by appealing to altruism and solidarity. This will promote the responsibility of society and give each individual a share in the safety measure.
The use of face coverings in the UK
To contextualize the securitization theory, the transmission of Covid-19 in the UK has been portrayed as a threat to human security. This is due to the virus, which affects a person’s mental and physical health, as well as economic security. The widespread nature of the threat has led to it being viewed as a national security issue as well. The securitization actor, the UK government, was responsible for saving lives by lowering the infection rate and protecting institutions like the National Healthcare Service. The government used televised speeches and conferences to highlight the danger of airborne transmission, to document the problem, and to put forward extreme measures to prevent it. One of these extreme measures was the mandatory enforcement of indoor face coverings with a fine of £ 100, which was later increased to £ 200 for non-compliance. During press conferences, government officials appealed to the concept of altruism and encouraged citizens to take responsibility for the security of society. On June 23, 2020, the Prime Minister referred to the need for society to “do our part to fight the virus”. Through the discourse on promoting individual responsibility to prevent transmission within our communities, the government has promoted the responsibility of British citizens.
In addition, the government has invested individuals in the security threat to make them more susceptible to the use of extreme measures. This is the result of an Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN) from August 12 to August 16, 2020, in which 69% of adults surveyed believed that the police were “in enforcing rules to reduce the risk of Coronavirus spread should be very strict or strict “. Given the consensus among the public on greater enforcement of these rules, the mandate was to allow extreme measures to be used aimed at making society safer from the virus. This means that if the population wishes the safety measure to be enforced, face masks can provide safety. This is underpinned by OPN surveys carried out between September 18 and October 16, 2020. More than 9 out of 10 adults said they “wore a face covering to slow the spread of the coronavirus”. This high level of compliance underscores the impact of government discourse and enforcement on promoting UK people’s accountability and enforcement of governance from the bottom up.
Although face covering is becoming a universal safety measure, some individuals are legally exempt. The government’s official guidelines contain various exceptions including disability, mental illness, and in cases where the use of a face covering would cause the individual “severe stress”. However, some of these conditions are not always visible externally, which means that other people may have doubts about deliverance. It is the individual’s prerogative to wear a mark, card, or badge that serves as a visible symbol of his or her liberation. The decision to do without such a symbol can provoke antagonism and uncertainty, as another person wearing a mask will feel that the rules are not being followed by the entire community. As a result, while wearing mass masks can lead to greater selflessness, it can also lead to a societal polarization of those who are perceived as antonyms for it.
This is illustrated by the case of Georgina Fallows, who was berated by members of the public for not wearing a mask. As a rape survivor, Georgina finds it difficult to cover her mouth as it evokes memories of her attack. However, she has problems with the fact that her liberation is not viewed as legitimate or “official” by others. She stated that she was accused of causing a public family member to be killed by the virus. Because of this, Georgina feels that she needs to avoid using public transport or entering shops. Indeed, the responsibility and governance of society can lead to isolation for those who do not appear to be an example of responsible behavior and community protection. As a result, face coverings can create security for the majority, but create greater insecurity for a minority.
People’s insecurity has also been evidenced by the increase in hate crime in 2020, which can be linked to increasing governance in British society. Metropolitan Police Deputy Commissioner Nick Ephgrave told the London Assembly’s Police and Crime Committee that there was a link between face masks and increasing hate crime. Ephgrave said that between January and September 2020, hate crime in London increased by 17 percent, while the national level increased by 25 percent. It was stated that debates that began with an emphasis on face covering had often led to arguments that resulted in racist abuse. Government can empower individuals to voice their concerns. However, expressing hatred can lead to victimization of others. This is because the security measure has created greater social tensions, which as a result, can act as triggers for hate crimes. While governance can ensure compliance, it can also single out individuals, creating human insecurity.
In addition, Northamptonshire Police Department reported that although cases were increasing in the county, select individuals continued to disregard the rules to control the spread. The public had raised concerns about certain people who refused to hide their faces in public transport. As a result, the police were given additional powers to enforce the wearing of face masks. From March 27 to October 19, 2020, Northamptonshire Police issued 9 coercive sentences for “failing to wear a face covering in public transport”.  As this public denunciation shows, the crimes of those who refuse to abide by these regulations have created insecurity. However, there is a mandate to combat violations that allows authorities to reduce this uncertainty. In addition, the reports by members of the public underscore the UK public’s responsibility to hold others accountable for compliance with the safety measure.
The use of face coverings in the United States
Conversely, in the United States, security from this threat was not generally possible. While certain health officials have cited airborne transmission of Covid-19 as a security threat, this has not been consistent at the national level. However, on April 3, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly recommended that Americans wear face masks. Based on this recommendation, from April 8 to May 15, 2020, 15 US states and Washington D.C. granted a nationwide mandate for face masks in public spaces. In a model created by Wei and Wehby, it was projected that due to the existing mask mandates it could be approximated by May 22, 2020 that 230,000 – 450,000 cases of Covid-19 could have been averted. Although these rates may also have been influenced by other preventive measures such as social distancing, the data confirm that mask mandates have a direct impact on transmission rates and increase the safety of both individuals and communities.
In addition, research by Chernozhukov et al. has confirmed US citizens will be safer from the virus by wearing face covers. They estimated that if a national face mask mandate for public company workers had been enforced on March 14, 2020, the rate of growth in Covid-19 cases and subsequent deaths could have resulted in a reduction of around 10 percent by the end, they said indicated that this measure could have saved 34,000 lives by the end of May. It can therefore be concluded that a national mask mandate, particularly for public sector employees, would have slowed the spread of the virus and increased human security. This shows that security from face covering is possible, although it depends on the securitizing actor enforcing the measure through a national mandate.
Nonetheless, compliance with civic regulations for general social security is particularly difficult due to the question of individual freedom. The face mask has become a symbol of collective action to protect the general public from the transmission of the virus. In the United States, however, the principle of self-determination prevented the people from becoming responsible. For some people, they believe it is their right to choose whether to participate in the wearing of face covering. The self-determination theory focuses on autonomy as one of the “basic psychological needs”. Scheid et al. suggest that wearing masks, which has been recommended and even legalized, can “affect the perception of autonomy” and provoke a psychological response which can subsequently be translated into a negative reaction. This can lead to attempts to restore freedom perceived as threatened, leading to reactions such as anger and non-compliance.
This was illustrated by “anti-mask” protests in the US. According to anti-mask protesters, a major reason for the protest was the revocation of individual freedoms and rights. This shows that these people feared that their autonomy was being threatened, which provoked a negative reaction in the form of protest. This movement can serve to undermine efforts to keep face covering safe and affirm that safety is only possible when there is a receptive audience. As a result, security is not possible for every individual unless security from face covering is desired. To ensure security, it may be imperative to focus on the role of the securitization actor in presenting the security issue and promoting compliance by the public.
Although the majority of states have a nationwide mask mandate, there are still large states like Wyoming that don’t. In contrast, New York is home to nineteen million more people than Wyoming. In April 2020, a nationwide face mask mandate was introduced in New York. The document produced by the city health department stated that “face covering is critical to stop the spread of COVID-19”. The ministry recognized the safety threat of airborne transmission and stated that the use of a face covering would reduce “exposure to respiratory droplets that may contain the virus”. While Wyoming recorded 145.0 cases per 100,000 cases from November 12-19, 2020, New York reported 27.4 cases despite a larger population. The widespread use of face coverings in New York was promoted by the mayor and invested by the state’s population. This therefore shows that security is possible by wearing face-covering, but depends on whether the problem of airborne transmission is documented by the securitizing actor.
The impact of conflicting information on the population was also shown by Goldberg et al. They examined the attitude of 3,933 people to wearing masks between April 3rd and April 7th. With the CDC’s recommendation being disseminated by the media and news outlets on April 4, this research was able to measure the recommendation’s impact on public attitudes. The results showed a significant increase in mask wear and purchase between April 5th and April 7th compared to the data recorded April 3rd to 4th. Goldberg et al. In addition, the term “face mask” reported a peak number of searches on the Internet, YouTube and the news on April 4. This shows that the susceptibility to a security measure can be improved if a relevant authority recognizes that such an extreme measure enables greater security. This signifies the discursive nature of securitization, as authority is required to present a security threat as such. Until then, the sporadic and inconsistent use of face masks prevents the possibility of widespread safety in the use of face coverings.
The inconsistency of mask mandates across state borders is due to divisions between political figures regarding the need for face coverings. This lack of consensus was later reflected in public attitudes. From June 4 to 10, 2020, the Pew Research Center measured the opinions of a panel of 9,654 adults from the United States. Of those polled, 71 percent of moderate Democrats said they wore face-covering “all or most of the time” over the past month, up to 83 percent for Liberal Democrats. In direct contrast, the moderate Republicans are 60 percent and the Conservative Republicans are 49 percent. These data illustrate that political tendencies can influence whether a person chooses to wear face covering. A Trump rally was held in North Carolina on September 8, 2020. Despite the mask mandate that has existed since June, Republican President Donald Trump decided not to wear a face mask. This was in contrast to Joe Biden, the Democratic President-elect, who encouraged voters to wear face masks. The disagreement and lack of compliance due to political partisanship has led certain sections of society to believe that face coverings are not essential to keeping society safer from the virus. Without securitization by the securitization actor, divisions over face covering have deepened, preventing widespread virus security from being achieved.
The continued securitization of face coverings
Consensus has been reached in the UK on the need for face covering, with acceptance across the political spectrum that society must adhere to the extreme security measures imposed by the government. This is illustrated by the “hands, face, space” slogan, which highlights that face covering is a fundamental component in the fight against the transmission of Covid-19. Conversely, in the United States, despite the finding by health officials that the widespread use of face coverings allows greater safety, this idea has still not been widely accepted. This underscores the importance of discourse in securitizing an issue and promoting the responsibility of citizens to combat it effectively. Still, airborne transmission is a hot topic. Therefore, while we can measure the security already provided by face coverings, we cannot be sure that greater security is possible.
This means that the risk of airborne transmission cannot be defused and returned to “normal politics”. Until the vaccine became universal, face masks continued to be used to slow the spread of the virus. Desecuritization is therefore more of a long-term process than a singular event. With rates currently soaring in both the UK and the United States, face coverings continue to be used in conjunction with other safety measures such as social distancing. As Lerner et al. Finding that returning to normal conditions requires both “widespread acceptance and acceptance of wearing masks” and the use of other methods of intervention. The effect of both this acceptance and adoption has been demonstrated by Abaluck et al. Developed to indicate that in countries with “pre-existing standards” of the need to wear a face mask when sick, these rates were 8 to 10 percent lower than in nations without these previous standards. This underscores the need for a population to invest in certain ideas, which are then spread so widely that the idea can turn into a norm. This can lead to longer-term citizenship responsibility by creating an internalized standard to continuously ensure greater health security.
To sum up, the use of face coverings enables safety as it prevents airborne transmission and is an effective measure of reducing the threat for which it was designed. Enforcing face coverings, however, poses a challenge to human security as such a mandate can create insecurity if not worn, jeopardize our individual freedoms and lead to an increase in crime. However, the use of face coverings is effective when there is consensus on compliance with the safety measure. For security from action to be possible, the idea that it is effective and essential must become a widespread norm in society. This can happen when accountability and governance have been strengthened from the bottom up, allowing citizens to participate in the security measure. The power of such a discourse is demonstrated in the cases of the United Kingdom and the United States, where the former has been able to certify the threat of airborne transmission and enforce extreme measures in response. Conversely, in the US, the split of the problem means that safety from wearing face masks is not possible. The perception of face masks is therefore essential for the success of such a security measure, since the threat cannot be securitized and thus contained without the consent of the audience.
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Written at: University of East Anglia
Written for: Lee Jarvis
Date written: December 2020