If Masks Are Mandatory, They Should Be Classed As Free Essential Items

If you can’t afford to pay for masks, you’re even less likely to be able to afford a $200 fine, making it essentially a form of punishment for being poor.

free face masks

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With a new outbreak of COVID-19 gripping Victoria, the state government has taken the significant step of ruling masks to be mandatory.

It’s a decision that has been welcomed by some, arguing that a $200 fine handed out to non-mask wearers would be a significant incentive. Regardless of the mask culture wars playing out in the USA, it’s a fact that there’s a huge public health benefit to masks being more widely used, and recognising that is a net positive. 

Where we run into issues is in the execution of the idea.

Masks aren’t a free product. Let’s be clear about that. They cost money. When they’re mandatory, that puts the onus on individuals to source a supply of masks and put down their own cash in order to comply with the rules.

While that state of affairs and that responsibility might be acceptable to some parts of the demographic — it puts the most disadvantaged members of society at the most risk.

If Masks Are An Essential Item, Shouldn’t They Be Provided For Us?

By making masks a requirement for being outside the home, the Victorian government has decided that they are an essential item.

An essential item that we must have access to. And that’s all well and good. But we have to be practical. Sticking our heads in the sand and saying everyone should be able to afford masks is the same approach we’ve taken to the housing market, and guess what — most of us still don’t own a house.

Wishful thinking isn’t the solution to any kind of crisis, whether it’s housing or public health. 

If we want everyone to wear a mask, and if we want to implement consequences if they don’t, we need to make sure everyone can get a mask in the first place. And that means they should be free, and they should be distributed for free, and they should be readily available to every single person.

If we’re looking for a way to fix the current public health crisis — that’s the way forward. Calling masks an essential item, and doing the best we can to provide that essential item is a game changer. 

But There’s More. A Category Of Essential Items Makes Sense.

Establishing a category of essentials, like masks, isn’t a radical concept.

There are basic items as requirements that we need in order to function in a society, and right now those items aren’t made available in any way that we could call fair. People need access to tampons, pads and sanitary products in order to live a functional life, but we’re  not making them available equitably.

If you’re caught between trying to pay for food and trying to pay for essentials, it’s a rough go. Right now, that’s even more of a problem. We’re in a pandemic and a recession — belts are going to be tightening. Folks are going to be running out of options. 

Wait A Second. Why Is This The Government’s Responsibility?

Let’s stop framing anything as being the government’s responsibility; it’s our responsibility. It’s a shared responsibility.

The truth of it is this: George Costanza was 100% on the money when he said we’re “living in a society”. When public health and safety is a community concern, it comes down to the community to pull together and get it done.

The government is no more than an extension of our community, and we need to be providing for each other and for ourselves collectively. 

This Isn’t A New Idea. By Now, It’s An Old One.

We wouldn’t be the first country to start providing essential items to its citizens, and levelling the playing field while doing so. We wouldn’t even be the second.

Scotland has been providing free sanitary products as essentials through schools, universities and other publicly accessible distribution centres since 2018. In 2020, New Zealand followed suit, providing free sanitary products in schools across the country. There’s a precedent for doing this.

Taking a first step with masks is where it starts, and with the danger of a nationwide second-wave growing, the proposition of taking that step federally is a damn good one.

If you can’t afford to pay for masks, you’re even less likely to be able to afford a $200 fine, making it essentially a form of punishment for being poor. That on its own would make the mask regulation a dangerous concept; but when you add to it concerns around the supply of masks, and the potential of a run on that supply as people panic about the rules and the outbreak, you have a recipe for disaster.

If we can solve that disaster with essential items, there’s no reason we can’t solve period poverty and over health problems in the same way, building on that framework. 

When we want to live in a functional society, where people aren’t left in a ditch and where we each know that we have that same safety net, it means that we need to be able to pool resources, through the taxes we pay and our civic participation, to ensure that everyone gets that famous fair-go we like to promote. 

Joan Westenberg is a Sydney based writer and a proud transgender woman.