A person steering a boat with a face mask for a sail, on a sea of face masks.
(Image: Archi Banal)

SocietyOctober 11, 2021

Anti-maskers have ruined exemptions for the people who actually need them

A person steering a boat with a face mask for a sail, on a sea of face masks.
(Image: Archi Banal)

Mask sceptics are applying for exemptions en masse – leaving the vulnerable people who can’t wear masks for valid reasons tarred with the same brush.

Last Thursday, vocal anti-Covid restriction and anti-vaccine lobby group Voices For Freedom sent a newsletter to its followers detailing updated information on how to procure a mask exemption card.

The email pointed out that a pdf of the exemption card that was previously available to download from the Unite Against Covid website was no longer there, and so shared the phone number and contact details of the Disabled Person’s Assembly NZ (DPA NZ), one of a handful of organisations mandated to distribute them.

While the group’s claims about vaccinations and alternative treatments have been debunked a number of times, with scientists and researchers discrediting no less than 17 claims contained in a single pamphlet distributed by the group in May, the information contained in the email is completely correct: the exemption is self-regulating and if you meet the definition in the Covid-19 Public Health Response order then that’s sufficient – you don’t have to carry an exemption card. It states that a person is exempt from wearing a mask if “the person has a physical or mental illness or condition or disability that makes wearing a face covering unsuitable”. And secondly, that most businesses don’t know masks aren’t strictly mandated under the law, and exemptions should be allowed.

What Voices For Freedom don’t mention is that everyone opposing mask wearing for political reasons has made the pandemic even harder for vulnerable people who actually need an exemption.

The CEO of DPA NZ, Prudence Walker, says groups like Voices For Freedom “take advantage of us as an organisation, and everyone who is legitimately exempt, by taking up our time”. But she also points out that a lack of government messaging on valid exemptions means anti-maskers dominate the conversation, and those with legitimate needs get tarred with the same brush.

“Of course we want as many people as possible to wear face coverings, but there’s been very little acknowledgement that not everybody is able to wear one. The focus I believe is on the wrong thing, because it’s around policing the people who are not legitimately using the exemption, and where’s the conversation about the people who are actually exempt?”

(Image: Twitter)

She says the reasons for exemption are varied. “People who are neurodiverse with sensory issues around wearing a face-covering; people who have a physical health condition like respiratory issues; people who have had surgery on their ears or nose, and then there are people with anxiety.”

Walker says anxiety and PTSD issues are common, and hard to assign a “diagnosis”. They’re also the ones who risk retraumatisation when questioned by a security or sales person. “In cases of trauma, other people in their lives don’t necessarily know this stuff, which makes it really dangerous when the general public feel the need to confront people and demand to know why aren’t you wearing a mask?.

She compares it to a recent experience where a salesperson casually asked what she’d done to “end up” using a mobility scooter. “Disabled people get that all the time, but she doesn’t want to know! If I told her all the gory details around why… she doesn’t want to know that at all. I just dismiss it with ‘It’s a long story’. But in this situation [not wearing a mask], people can’t get away with a response like that.”

DPA NZ has around 20 employees, 90% of them disabled. Because the exemption system is self-regulating, they aren’t there to tell people if they are or aren’t exempt – just to distribute an official exemption card once they’re satisfied that the reasons given comply with the health order. The “officialness” of the card is supposed to make it a bit easier for people than simply asking to being taken at their word, even though that is technically allowable. They’ve issued around 8,000 exemptions since last year which, as Walker points out, is only .15% of the population, but the recent uptick in requests over the past two months has put significant pressure on the small organisation. They also get a lot of employees and employers seeking advice – a role they’re not entirely set up to fulfil. “Businesses are at least trying to seek out information, and they see us as the place to do that, but we’re not. We’re not employment law experts.”

She says they’ve often referred people to MBIE or the health ministry, who have referred them right back to DPA NZ. “This puts us in a really difficult position,” she says. “We’re quite confident in what our role is and what we’re not, but the fact we’re getting these inquiries tells us that there’s many questions out there from people not sure what to do. That’s where I think the awareness and general messaging needs to come through. Business owners and managers have just heard ‘masks mandatory’ so they’re like, ‘Right, this is what’s expected of me’. And then they’re confronted with people who say they’re exempt and they don’t know what to do.

“Personal opinion comes into it too – VTNZ for example have a blanket policy around ‘no masks, no entry, no exemptions’ which isn’t OK from a human rights angle.”

Public policing of masks goes both ways – anti-maskers accusing those wearing masks of being “sheep” is common, as are members of the public demanding to know why others aren’t wearing them. Those people for whom wearing a mask is painful are stuck in the crossfire.

Artie* is a 16 year-old living in Auckland who has asthma and beta thalassemia, a condition that reduces the production of hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen throughout the body. Even without a mask, they say that everyday activities often leave them short of breath and dizzy. “For me, wearing a mask for an extended period of time makes the effect of my conditions significantly worse, because it’s difficult for me to draw air through my mask and through my already narrowed airways.”

Artie says because of the reactions to maskless people they’ve seen in person, and on social media, they wear one anyway. “I wear a mask because frankly I don’t want to be confronted by people who have good intentions, and because I’d rather take the pain and symptoms than be yelled at. I’m just a 16 year-old kid who wants to buy bread and milk, I don’t want a fight.”

To make matters worse, Artie wears a binder to ease body dysmorphia, but physically can’t wear one with a mask at the same time. “That’s something that’s important to my general well being. Usually I can wear a binder for the equivalent of a whole school day without too much pain. Once I tried to walk to the supermarket while masked and wearing a binder, but afterwards my ribs hurt so much I couldn’t wear a binder at all for a week.”

They are just as frustrated by organisations that amplify mask non-compliance in the name of “freedom”.

“People who don’t need exemption cards who are getting them are real fucking dickheads. Not just because many people who can’t wear masks are more vulnerable to Covid-19, and are relying on everyone else wearing a mask to keep them safe, but also because it delegitimises everyone who needs exemptions.”

Like Walker, Artie believes a little more communication and information sharing between the government, the public and businesses would help people like them.

“I’d just like businesses and people to at least acknowledge that there are some people who can’t wear masks, whether it’s in the signs about mask requirement – even a little disclaimer would be good – or the way in which unmasked people are treated.

“There’s this tendency to treat disabled people as abstract concepts, but people who can’t wear masks are real actual people.”

* Surname withheld for privacy reasons

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