The alarming news of spiking coronavirus cases across the United States is only made worse when considering the very easy way by which the deadly virus can be thwarted.
On Wednesday, the U.S. reported more than 36,000 new COVID-19 cases, the highest number since the pandemic began (until Thursday's 41,000). With more than 125,000 Americans dead, and projections for that number to reach 180,000 by the early fall, the United States is facing historic devastation, even as much of the rest of the world begins its recovery.
That so much of this could have been prevented had Americans simply worn facemasks is a damning indictment of both our national response and the broken culture that shaped it. Even more, the fact that President Trump has never urged Americans to wear masks, but rather actively undermined that recommendation by his own refusal to do so, is the clearest proof of his inability to fulfill even the most basic obligations of the presidency — and a dire warning about the deadly consequences should he be president for four more years.
From the start, Trump has failed to take the pandemic seriously, dismissing it initially as an insignificant illness that would go away on its own. When that didn't happen, Trump leaned into his crackpot tendencies, recklessly pushing hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for the virus. That didn't work either.
Yet when public health officials began to insist that Americans socially distance and wear masks whenever out in public — an admittedly frustrating reversal from their original position that face coverings wouldn't stop infections from spreading — Trump ignored their recommendations. Nearly two months ago, experts concluded that if 80 percent of Americans wore masks, the rate of coronavirus infections would drop drastically. This week, a new study showed that should 95 percent of Americans wear masks, the projected 180,000 deaths by October 1 could be reduced to fewer than 150,000. But none of this has altered Trump's stance. Expertise rarely does. Even as he rushed the nation into reopening, Trump refused to promote the single best measure for safely doing so.
Instead, on Twitter and in interviews, Trump said he wouldn't be wearing a mask, mocked Joe Biden for doing so, and wondered aloud if masks would do any good. Because Trump is incapable of understanding the virus — he has confused coronavirus with a bacterial infection and just this week revealed he didn't know what the “19” in COVID-19 meant — he would rather sow confusion and weaken scientific consensus, a strategy also meant to shift the blame from him. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal earlier this month, Trump repeatedly questioned the efficacy of masks, describing them as “a double-edged sword.” They are not.
But even more than his words, Trump's failure to wear a mask sends a powerful signal to his followers that they don't need to do so either. Given how attached Trump's supporters are to his symbolic presence and how dismissive they are of traditional authorities, his continually unmasked face has been a decisive nail in a very deadly coffin.
That much was clear at last week's rally in Tulsa and in the Students for Trump event in Phoenix on Tuesday, where attendees at both events congregated indoors overwhelmingly without masks. We don't yet have reports of attendees from either events testing positive for coronavirus, but there are grim warning signs of what they should expect in the escalating rates of infection across America's southern half where people have returned to normal life while not wearing masks.
All of this might be very different had the president months ago taken to wearing a mask in public and presented it as a patriotic act to heal the nation and save the economy. Instead, Trump's lackeys at Fox News and in governor's mansions followed the president's lethal lead. Conservative pundits likened mask orders to totalitarianism and state executives, like Florida's Ron DeSantis and Texas' Greg Abbott, chose to kiss up to Trump rather than protect their own citizens.
Many Americans have begun to complain that the issue of wearing masks has been made highly political. That obscures, however, what it actually is: entirely partisan. Yes, some Republican leaders are finally calling on Americans to wear masks, thank goodness. But until President Trump wears a mask and tells Americans to do so too, the nation will remain dangerously divided on this critical effort, threatening the health of all of us.
As we approach July 4 and contemplate its meaning, it's striking that our displays of patriotism rarely require acts of self-sacrifice. It's not much of a burden, of course, to wear a face mask in public. But it's entirely revealing that this very simple act — one that could save the lives of millions of Americans and ensure the nation's well-being — has elicited such defiant, even virulent, responses. Americans rightly prize their individualism. But a nation that cannot prioritize its common bonds over individual rights, especially in a pandemic moment, has little chance of survival.
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