March 20, 2023 - 4:00pm

Today, at 4:30 Pacific Time, a group calling itself Mask Bloc will gather in the courthouse square in Portland, Oregon dressed in black, with masks, to mourn the official end of mask requirements in healthcare settings in Oregon.

Mask Bloc’s tweets are now protected, but the gathering invited protesters to “”Wear funeral black, wear your mask, bring signs” to lament “the end of infection control in OR”. It’s billed as a “funeral” for “public health”.

The meaning of “public health” in this context, though, merits a moment’s reflection. Portland is, after all, a city whose drug and homelessness problem is well-documented. Overdose deaths were already climbing in 2020, a change attributed to the pandemic. But following the 2021 passing of Ballot Measure 110, with 58.8% support, which decriminalised the use of hard drugs, overdose deaths both in Portland and across Oregon rose by 41%.

This is the kind of change that, on most people’s metric, would constitute a severe public health issue, as would the proliferation of tent encampments throughout the city, along with litter, and rising crime and violence rates — a shift that has driven some long-time residents to sell up and move.

It’s a fairly safe bet that the people holding a ‘funeral’ for the end of mandatory masking in doctor’s appointments don’t view the proliferation of homeless encampments characterised by litter, violence, petty crime and rampant drug abuse as a public health issue. Meanwhile, more recent research has cast doubt on the efficacy of masking full stop as a means of slowing transmission of Covid-19. 

It’s a good rule of thumb that obvious inconsistencies tend to reflect unstated moral hierarchies; this, then, makes me curious about the common underlying moral position that legitimates rampant public ill-health in the context of drug use while erupting in obvious outrage at the discontinuation of a ‘public health’ measure whose impact was minimal at best.

My best guess at the common factor is that this apparently inconsistent position reflects an underlying belief that it’s an act of radical love and kindness to demolish every possible way in which people might be said to have an effect on or obligation to one another in a social context.

This explains the fixation on masks: wearing one symbolises a desire to contain one’s own microbial footprint, so it doesn’t accidentally contaminate someone else and thus impinge on their autonomy. For someone with a total metaphysical commitment to autonomy this is a basic ethical duty. I can see why such individuals would be outraged by others’ willingness to embrace an elevated level of involuntary mutual contamination: from this perspective, such willingness looks like a derogation of our individual duty to safeguard others’ freedom from our actions (even from our microbiome).

Conversely, for believers in separateness-as-love, drug abuse and homelessness can’t be read as public health crises. That’s because it follows from this that everyone around us also has skin in the game in which our individual choices are concerned. And it follows from this that safeguarding the social fabric requires some top-down curbs on individual freedom. From the freedom-absolutist’s perspective, even such a low bar as prohibitions on injecting hard drugs on the pavement or defecating in the park are an inexcusable infringement on that freedom.

It’s to the credit of even as institutionally liberal a jurisdiction as Portland that the most potent contemporary symbol of atomisation-as-love – the Covid mask – is now being jettisoned. But we should not expect the pseudo-religious worship of radical separateness to go away any time soon.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.