Being Asked to Wear a Face Mask isn’t Tyranny.

  • by:
  • 03/02/2023

A couple of days ago, conservative commentator Candace Owens took to Periscope to recount a bizarre story about being asked by a police officer at Whole Foods in D.C. to wear a mask while shopping; “#coronavirus is spiraling into tyranny,” Owens wrote. Less than three hours away, as though to validate her concerns, New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo issued an order Wednesday requiring masks in public places. “The order will take effect on Friday and will apply to people who are unable to keep six feet away from others in public settings, such as on a bus or subway, on a crowded sidewalk or inside a grocery store.”

“Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people.”

As the United States buckles down for at least another month of sheltering-at-home, many have joined Owens in asking if the public health measures have gone too far. More than 22 million Americans filed for unemployment over the past four weeks—and that number is growing. The costs of quarantine are mounting; some worry they’ve gone too far.

On Thursday, thousands of Michigan residents converged on their state Capitol to protest Governor Whitmer’s restrictive ‘Stay Home’ order. #OperationGridlock saw at least 15,000 cars and trucks descend on Lansing. “Quarantine is when you restrict movement of sick people. Tyranny is when you restrict the movement of healthy people,” Meshawn Maddock, an organizer of the protest with the Michigan Conservative Coalition, told Fox News.

Owens, of course, has long been in denial of the worldwide pandemic, calling preventative face masks “Muslim medical garb,” and dismissing the almost 30,000 Americans lives lost to COVID-19 as a “coddled, fearful, ego-centric generation of weak men.” Her views have inspired many on the right to ask: is lockdown worse than COVID-19? Are the emergency measures enacted by states government overreach—are they, as Maddock puts it, tyranny?

Americans are quick (though, more often, it’s those on the left) to use words like “tyranny,” “fascism,” and “authoritarianism” to describe the Trump Administration. Their trigger-happy trivializations must seem bizarre to many in the rest of the world who don’t have the luxury of government by-the-people and for-the-people. A third of the world’s population is now under coronavirus lockdown; “Countries around the world are implementing measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus, from national quarantines to school closures,” writes Bloomberg. 

And in many parts of the world, that doesn’t take the form of constitutionally-mediated, careful measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19 long enough to allow time to build up our hospital infrastructure. American “tyranny” (according to Owens), on the other hand, takes the form of cities like New York committing to providing free psychosocial counseling by phone to all residents as they shelter in place.

It’s more than the fact that Owens has an anti-social way of looking at a contagious disease. Her hostile, hyperbolic rhetoric is sowing mistrust and paranoia at a time when America should be coming together and setting an example for the world.

[caption id="attachment_182142" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Italian police enforcing stay-at-home orders. Italian police enforcing stay-at-home orders.[/caption]


The first strict lockdown was implemented in Wuhan, China, the outbreak's epicenter. On January 23rd, the state initiated a 76-day lockdown that saw life in China’s Hubei province come to a grinding halt. All public transportation and access points, including highways, buses, railways, flights, and ferry services were suspended, and the 11-million residents of Wuhan were not able to leave the city boundaries without express permission from authorities. Initially, people were allowed out to shop for food—but by mid-February, nobody was allowed to leave their residential compounds. 

“The scope of the Chinese government’s surveillance operation was already staggering, employing advanced technology like GPS tracking, artificial intelligence and facial recognition."

“At least two citizen journalists, who tried to share information about the outbreak online, were reported missing,” reports the BBC. “Temperature checks were rolled out in the streets and some reported guards at entrances to residence buildings to keep people inside.” 

As leaders in the democratic world pleaded with their citizens to stay at home, self-quarantine, and wash their hands, Xi Jinping “mobilized the country's omnipresent army of monitors to keep tabs on every move of every Hubei resident without any regard for individual privacy or human rights … China Telecom color-coded phones in traffic-light red, green, and yellow, based on their risk of carrying the virus,” reports Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst at Reason Foundation. “In their COVID-19 response, China, Iran, and Russia are using digital surveillance measures that threaten individuals’ right to privacy, free expression, and association,” writes Human Rights Watch.

Last week, Wuhan reopened its borders—but an invasive government surveillance app is required to enter and exit the region. “The scope of the Chinese government’s surveillance operation was already staggering, employing advanced technology like GPS tracking, artificial intelligence and facial recognition. Its expansion puts watchdogs on high alert,” writes ABC.

China’s response was extreme, but effective enough that the Hubei lockdown quickly became standardized as the global model for curve-flattening. Countries the world over took its cues from the CCP on how to contain and mitigate the fallout from COVID-19.

All of India’s 1.3 billion people were ordered into lockdown on March 24th, “the most far-reaching measure undertaken by any government to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic,” reports Bloomberg. Last week, authorities in India were filmed spraying migrant workers with sodium hypochlorite, a bleaching agent, apparently an attempt to disinfect them before they entered their home province.

Police in South Africa were seen indiscriminately using water cannons on civilians and firing rubber bullets in the city’s poorest neighborhoods to enforce a 21-day nationwide lockdown. In the Philippines, over 17,000 have been arrested for allegedly violating social distancing mandates. “In some cases, offenders were subject to public shaming and abuse as punishment for their crimes, including placing young people in dog cages and forcing others to sit in the scorching sun,” reports Bloomberg. 

This is what actual tyranny looks like—not an overburdened and harassed grocery store security guard asking you to wear a mask.

Police in Nairobi, Kenya, shot and killed a 13-year-old boy on his balcony as they moved through the neighborhood, enforcing a coronavirus curfew. “Armed variously with guns, whips and tear gas canisters, security officers in several African countries have been beating, harassing and, in some cases, killing people as they enforce measures aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19,” reports BBC.

“In Mexico’s southern state of Yucatan people diagnosed with the virus or showing symptoms may be forced to serve up to three years in prison if they don’t quarantine themselves,” according to Bloomberg. Authorities in Indonesia have been “charging people under abusive criminal defamation laws for their online comments about the coronavirus and the government’s response.”

This is what lockdown looks all over the world; this is how countries with weak rule of law or authoritarian governments force their citizens to take COVID-19 seriously. There is no informing, convincing, or negotiating with the public—there isn’t even care or concern for the public.

In my own country, Malaysia, has entered into “a harsher phase of its official Movement Control Order.” As Voice of America reports, “Police set up hundreds of roadblocks, have been conducting inspections, and have arrested thousands, including one man who jumped into the Strait of Malacca to avoid arrest, according to the government news service Bernama.” More than 4,000 people have been arrested, “marking the toughest law enforcement action in Southeast Asia after the Philippines.”

This is what actual tyranny looks like—not an overburdened and harassed grocery store security guard asking you to wear a mask.

[caption id="attachment_182143" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]Protesters in Michigan protesting Governor Whitmer's lockdown orders. Protesters in Michigan protesting Governor Whitmer's lockdown orders.[/caption]


If you look at President Trump’s timeline of “Decisive Actions To Combat the Coronavirus,” a stark contrast emerges between the Chinese model and what we see in the United States. The difference is so remarkable that Thomas Wright, writing for the Brookings Institute, commented that the United States is seen as a warning "of how a populist government is incapable of handling this crisis.”

“[T]he United States is seen as a warning "of how a populist government is incapable of handling this crisis.”

For one thing, the American President does not have the authority to open—or close—the economy. “The federal government's powers include printing money, regulating commerce between the states and between parties outside the U.S. and those within the U.S., and waging war. It cannot force the states, which are expressly granted their own sovereignty by way of the 10th Amendment, to reopen their economies,” writes Billy Binion.

America’s “unique federal system does not mean that Trump remains utterly powerless to bring the nation out of this unprecedented economic contraction. But he will have to rely less on command and more on persuasion,” writes John Yoo.

With democracy comes friction, comes a distribution of power between federal and local authority, and comes a degree of accountability to public opinion that you don’t see in the rest of the world. And public opinion is on President Trump’s side—not Candace Owens’. Recent polling shows that 81% of voters support social distancing measures, despite the damage to the economy.

Even private entities in the United States are beholden to American public opinion: last Friday, Apple and Google announced a rare joint project—a contact-tracing app using Bluetooth technology. But responding to immediate concerns raised by American privacy activists, Apple and Google had to clarify their plan “to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks,” writes ABC.

The fact of the matter is, this is a worldwide crisis. And in the United States, the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation, has the luxury of maximizing the power of government to respond effectively to a crisis. The Trump Administration is not asking to take control of the means of production or massive redistribution—America’s President didn’t turn into a socialist overnight. 

Last month, conservative thought-leaders urged Donald Trump to take decisive action in the face of a global pandemic. “Pivot to wartime footing, today, and take America with you ... Only a true wartime mobilization—for total war—will get it done. Otherwise we are facing a cataclysm unlike any other in our history,” Peachy Keenan wrote, speaking for all of us as we watched horrific scenes from Italy circulating social media. You demanded, and the President delivered: "No resource will be spared. Nothing whatsoever," President Trump assured you. "Our immediate goal is to stop the spread of the virus and to help all Americans who have been impacted by this." 

This was a decisive moment for the Trump presidency and popular conservatism writ large. In the face of a global pandemic, we saw a strong executive take the lead and commit to keeping Americans safe. The United States began to offer the rest of the world an alternative to the brutality of the Chinese model.

I get it. Conservatives generally don’t take handouts—they pull themselves up by their bootstraps and work hard to provide for their families. It makes sense, then, why some conservatives are pivoting from the embrace of Wartime Trump—their economic anxieties in these trying times are valid.

But wartime is no time for trepidation—and it’s certainly not the time for anti-social rhetoric from influencers like Candace Owens.

Image: by is licensed under