The COVID-19 Pandemic impacted almost every facet of daily life. The emergence of this unknown pathogen has generated an enormous amount of panic; acting as a pretext for laws and regulation. It is easy to see how the insights of political economist Robert Higgs have been validated by the number of laws and relief bills that have proliferated in the name of the pandemic. Government action hardly ever has a neutral effect on the incentive structures of constituents, business interests, bureaucrats, and politicians. There is always a beneficiary of any implemented policy that exists within every decision-making structure. Even in the context of an apolitical governing institution such as a Home-Owners Association
The most common form of COVID-related laws have been mask mandates, like another policy, there are disparate effects. Since benefits can be conferred through mask mandates they apply to Bootlegger and Baptist’s (1983) coalition building. In almost any scenario the scientists would be our proverbial “Baptists” due to their vocal concern for public safety. This statement does not validate whether masks are effective at curtailing the spread of COVID-19. It most likely connotes a sincere concern for public welfare making it a normative position, therefore a moral argument for mask mandates.
Once we start to address who benefits from mask mandates the conversation starts to get interesting. Similar to the COVID engendered microchip shortage the beneficiaries of mask requirements have changed over time. The most notable “Bootlegger” of the nascent period of the pandemic were Mask producers. Specifically, mask manufactures are based out of China. It would be a mistake to interpret this observation as a tacit critique of free trade, this fact is self-evident. The increase in mask sales does not require any further explanation beyond mask mandates and fear of the virus spreading. The question of why this was more fruitful for Chinese producers than other mask manufactures does need to be elucidated. That was largely a byproduct of the recommendations of the FDA. Per the Brown Political Review:
“…A lack of knowledge and trust in these companies has led hospitals to severely ration their workers’ N95s rather than purchase additional supplies. The private market is no better: Facebook, Amazon, and Google are largely blocking domestic N95 manufacturers from advertising and selling their products. At the same time, most consumers feel obliged to use less-protective cloth or surgical masks due to continuing CDC guidance to reserve N95s for hospitals that will not even accept them. The CDC defends this policy by pointing to the relative efficacy of cloth masks and citing “reasons supported by science, comfort, costs, and practicality,” though these reasons seem increasingly outdated. So, the pandemic continues, millions of Americans live in fear of getting sick, and all the while tens of millions of life-saving products are sitting unused in storage facilities. The N95 shortage is an illusion, and as the virus and its variants continue to spread, more must be done to disseminate the essential products throughout the population…”
Even though domestic producers invested millions into expanding their production capacity, foreign masks were still preferred. It is estimated that “… between March and September 2020…” the shipping containers containing N95 masks imported into the U.S. increased from 6 to 3,000. While “…National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approved 19 domestic manufacturers to begin to produce N95s..” the agency neglected to promote the masks and clearly articulate the distribution plan. Even outside of China’s relative comparative advantage for manufacturing other factors funneled production demand in their direction. Several domestic policies made the sale and distribution of domestically produced masks more onerous. Clearing the U.S. market for Chinese producers.
China’s domination of the mask production market has advantages that extend beyond economic benefits. China also garnered some soft political power through possessing a surplus of N95 masks. The Chinese government utilized the distribution of masks as a tool of diplomacy. Whether this decision was a moral one is a firm subject for debate. It is undeniable that China appropriates some “political purchasing power” from their superior efficiency in manufacturing masks. This is true even in the absence of some of the more obtuse regulatory policies implemented by the United States. The Chinese government capitalized on this opportunity to exercise the nation’s political and economic strength. Many of the countries that received the most generously mask donations were nations that had the friendliest relations with China. Fully recognizing the potential for gaining social currency through these “benevolent” humanitarian gestures turned this venture in foreign aid into a publicity campaign.
The Chinese government seized the opportunity to “tell China’s story well” (Jacob 2020) and started donating medical equipment to other countries. While China sought discretion from donors such as the EU (when foreign medical supplies were sent to Hubei province in January 2020), the Chinese state media were quick to portray China’s donations as acts of benevolence (Popescu 2020). Many leaders of recipient countries duly praised China in return. For example, Serbia’s president welcomed a team of Chinese doctors in March 2020 by kissing the flag of the People’s Republic (CGTN 2020).
Many Americans may view the pandemic global aid initiative as a cynical ploy on China’s part. Such evaluations may be relatively inconsequential at least China was willing to help someone. In contrast, China could have opted to just horde all the N95 masks and callously sell what they could share from their domestic demand. However, it would also be naïve to completely ignore the political optics of the situation.
As time has passed and the pandemic continues, we have seen a shift in the beneficiaries of domestic mask mandates. Irrespective of the U.S. mask supply, the mask shortages of the early pandemic period have fallen out of public consciousness. Now the debate over mask mandates has devolved from a civil liberties debate to a diametrical shouting match. This uncivil discourse leaves little to no room for any grey area. Either you are either pro-mask or anti-mask with the underlying implication being that you either favor the mandates or oppose them. Few, if any pundits enrapture in this schoolyard squabble, would ever dare to oppose the mandates, but actively choose to wear a mask in public. Despite the fact, such a position is perfectly rational. Once again, we do live in an age of hyper-political polarization. In a similar manner to how the vaccines would later become politicized, any precautionary measure against COVID has morphed into the rhetorical argument. Where both sides of the debate completely dispense with facts and reason, leading to the assumption that both factions are more concerned with winning the debate than generating effective policy.
From the pro-mask campaign, an insidious and morally objectionable practice has emerged. That is the public shaming of mask and vaccine skeptics that have died of COVID. It is reasonable to argue that these media campaigns from the predominately left-wing media are more morally depraved than China’s mask allocation policies. The media has been joyously publishing headlines highlighting how COVID-skeptical public figures ranging from politicians to radio talk show hosts have succumbed to the virus. This public ridicule goes far deeper than utilizing these narratives as evidence that COVID is truly dangerous. There is a deeply ingrained derisive cruelty implied in it this public displace. In all honesty, is tantamount to dancing on the graves of these vocal opponents of mask mandates. The pro-mask camp unscrupulously benefits through utilizing these individuals as examples of why masks are necessary. In the same breath derive callous amusement out of mocking their “stupidity” with no regard or respect for the person that died.