At first, the “great debate” over whether people ought to be required to wear a protective facemask in public or maintain “social distance” in the interests of public health as the COVID-19 pandemic surges across the nation, surprised me. It should not have. The controversy is not really about facemasks or public safety. It is about mistrust and the culture of political conflict.
Like so much in this fragmented nation, this “mask issue” is really about something else: the widespread mistrust in not just the government but almost every major institution and group of “others” in the nation. Who do we trust? In many cases, the answer is, not much of anyone beyond our closest friends and family members, and we are not so sure about some of them.
One could argue, with a lot more evidence than can be mustered to justify not wearing a protective mask during a pandemic, that we all have good reason to mistrust the institutions that have failed us in so many ways.
One of the victims of the public mistrust of institutions is science, which politicians sdismiss or distort at their convenience. Another is sanity. The efficacy of wearing a facemask has become a matter of mistrust and political disbelief rather than one of the epidemiological evidence, which is unequivocally clear. Political disbelief is not about facts; it is about who one believes is on one’s side. Too many folks believe only those who espouse their own political and cultural beliefs.
Freedom and Responsibility
When was the last time you ran a red light in heavy traffic, as a matter of principle? We do take for granted the necessity of following certain “rules of the road” so that the traffic system works much better than it could without rules. Even so, many people are injured or killed. Of course, we can think of dozens of other contexts in which we feel the responsibility of “following the rules” for everyone’s benefit. It is a matter of social responsibility, even “law and order.”
So, why do so many people believe that it is their constitutional right not to wear a facemask in public in the midst of a viral pandemic? Well, the government has certainly given them enough mixed messages to sow doubt. The rare CDC officials who have not completely ceded their honesty to political pressure urge folks to follow the guidelines for suppressing outbreaks of infection.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a member of Trump’s coronavirus task force, has with extremely diplomatic delicacy tried to convey the seriousness of the matter. That puts him at odds with Trump. So, other members of the task force disparaged him because he “looks at it from a very narrow public health point of view.” What is so narrow about public health? The dead don’t get to have an economy. The fake president’s electoral politics of the economy trumps the health and survival of the American people.
At the same time, this know-nothing president advises us to ingest toxic disinfectants and take dangerous drugs— hydroxychloroquine—that have no known benefit for treating the COVID-19 disease. And he refuses to wear a mask or urge others to do so at his political rallies with unmasked attendees crowded close together. His indifference to public health is matched only by his determination to make every policy decision based solely on his quest for more personal power.
The freedom to act responsibly in response to a new and unfamiliar disease must rest on a person’s ability to assess facts as the basis for action. We already know the risks of running a red light. But most folks know very little about epidemiology. The science of disease transmission reaches far beyond personal experience. Epidemics and pandemics are about entire populations. Most Americans make judgments based on beliefs and interests in their personal lives.
The collective damage done by the novel coronavirus where no national plan is in place is unequivocally clear. The same goes for the responses of states. The politically indifferent virus rapidly accelerates its infection of a population in the absence of collective countermeasures. After the first (partial) “stay at home” orders in some US states, infection, hospitalization, and death rates began to go down. Then, with premature politically driven orders to “open up the economy,” rates grew exponentially again as personal convenience trumped risk assessment. Nations that enacted coherent response plans based on the science, succeeded in suppressing the pandemic.
Loss of Community and Trust in Mass Society
The US is the richest nation in the world. It is also one of the most unequal. Sociologists have long studied the loss of community and the rise of “mass society.” But what does that have to do with anything? Plenty.
In their international best-selling book, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, show how extreme inequality, especially where national wealth and income are greatest, as in the US, produce social-psychological damage and poor health. Status anxiety and self-promotion as well as narcissism and fear of the judgment of others arise under conditions of extreme inequality in a mass society where traditional community solidarity is nearly gone. Resentment abounds.
National economic success, achieved in part by fragmenting communities and fomenting an “every man for himself” attitude among increasingly socially isolated individual worker-consumers, came at the expense of social solidarity and the age-old value of mutual aid and support, so common in communities of the past. Fragmented societies with little social cohesion produce massive mistrust, not entirely unjustified.
Yet, we have observed many cases of individuals and groups quickly organizing to provide facemasks and supplies to the hard-hit Navaho Nation or to collect food for burgeoning numbers of newly homeless. Rebecca Solnit has chronicled similar feats of social solidarity and mutual aid in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Community is not quite dead yet.
The refusal to wear protective facemasks in the midst of overwhelming evidence of their effectiveness in protecting public health results not from a constitutional right to “liberty.” Instead, it arises from cultural mistrust exploited by ruthless politicians in vain attempts to bolster their political power at the cost of the health and life of the people whose interests they fail to represent.