What am I talking about? On Wednesday, Scott Morrison appeared on The Today Show to defend not bringing back in face mask mandates. “We don’t have to mandate people wearing sunscreen and hats in summer,” he said.
A few hours later, Morrison attended a National Cabinet meeting to strategise against Omicron, the new Covid variant currently tearing through the eastern states. Speaking to media afterwards, he repeated the comparison.
“Mask wearing in indoor spaces in public areas is of course highly recommended, whether it’s mandated or not,” Morrison said. "That’s what we should be doing in the same way as we go into the summer season. People will be slapping on their sunscreen. There’s no rule or requirement to do that. But it is strongly recommended health advice. It’s in the same category.”
There’s two big reasons why Morrison is wrong. The first is so extraordinarily obvious I don’t understand why it needs to be said, but here we go: sunburn isn’t contagious. Covid is. In fact, we have vast amounts of data to back up just how effective face masks are in preventing the spread of Covid.
If you choose to lie in the sun without slip, slop, slapping, then the only person suffering the consequences of your decision is you. That’s it! You won't pass on your burn to the person lying next to you. They’re not going to catch your redness. They’re not going to wake up the next day with a painful sensation on their shoulders and find bits of peeling skin in the sheets. They'll be just fine.
You, meanwhile, will be applying aloe vera religiously and experiencing some mild panic about skin cancer. (Here's your reminder to book a skin check.)
If you choose not to wear a face mask, and unknowingly have Covid… well, the chances are, you’ll also be just fine. However, the person next to you might not be. They might be immunocompromised, or live with someone who is. It’s why public health measures like mask mandates were implemented in the first place. They were never about protecting ourselves, but about protecting the vulnerable people around us.
The second reason is, of course, that Australia is fundamentally built on enforcing sun safety mandates. I am, of course, talking about “no hat, no play”. It’s such a fundamental Aussie experience that anyone who went to primary school in this country will know exactly what I’m talking about. If you don’t have a hat, you need to sit in the shade at lunch and will miss out on playing with your mates on the monkey bars.
(Now that I think about it, sitting in the shade is a little bit like doing your two-weeks quarantine: you don’t want to do it, but the upsides of getting a moment’s peace and quiet can’t be forgotten.)
It’s unfortunate that we’re two years into a global pandemic, and we’re still being asked to value ourselves as individuals over the community as a whole. Public health is a community issue. Our response can’t be all government mandates, or all personal responsibility, but somewhere in between. At times we’ve hit that balance well. Now, not so much.
And look, I get it. Wearing a face mask isn’t fun, but we do it to keep everyone around us safer. That’s not the message Morrison is selling. If only he was urging us to look out for those around us, too, instead of just ourselves.