Masks in Medicine: Metaphors and Morality

Lindsey Grubbs, Gail Geller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We have never been so aware of masks. They were in short supply in the early days of COVID-19, resulting in significant risk to health care workers. Now they are highly politicized with battles about mask-wearing protocols breaking out in public. Although masks have obtained a new urgency and ubiquity in the context of COVID-19, people have thought about both the literal and metaphorical role of masks in medicine for generations. In this paper, we discuss three such metaphors—the masks of objectivity, of infallibility, and of benevolence—and their powerful role in medicine. These masks can be viewed as inflexible barriers to communication, contributing to the traditional authoritarian relationship between doctor and patient and concealing the authenticity and vulnerability of physicians. COVID masks, by contrast, offer a more nuanced and morally complex metaphor for thinking about protecting people from harm, authentic and trustworthy communication, and attention to potential inequities both in and beyond medical settings. We highlight the morally relevant challenges and opportunities that masks evoke and suggest that there is much to be gained from rethinking the mask metaphor in medicine.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)103-107
Number of pages5
JournalJournal of Medical Humanities
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Communication
  • Masks
  • Medical uncertainty
  • Metaphor
  • Public health
  • Social inequity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy


Dive into the research topics of 'Masks in Medicine: Metaphors and Morality'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this