Six months into what began as an epidemic and became a worldwide pandemic, experts around the world have a much better idea of how COVID-19 spreads and what steps can be taken to stamp out an outbreak and prevent new waves of disease. The best estimates are that, in normal conditions, everyone infected with COVID-19 will infect between two and three other people. Reducing the spread of the disease means changing “normal” through social distancing and self-isolation. Anything that brings the number down is good. And when each person infects less than one new person, the epidemic begins to fizzle. Keep that up for even a few weeks, and the numbers can be driven to nearly zero. That’s what happened in China, and in North Korea, and in many other countries.
The opposite happened in the United States. COVID-19 exploded, killing at least 118,000 people and infecting millions. And now, months into the epidemic in America, with states insistent on reopening no matter what, evidence shows that there is a single measure that is highly effective in slowing the spread of the virus. A single step that can be taken that could save thousands of lives, genuinely push down the number of cases, and make reopening and a return to something close to “normal” practical without requiring a human sacrifice. So why won’t Republicans wear a f#cking mask?
In the first weeks of the novel coronavirus epidemic in China, as cases popped up elsewhere in the region, but the rest of the world remained mostly observers, rumors ran across the Internet. Maybe this disease was much worse for Asian people. A month later, as COVID-19 ravaged Italy, Spain, and New York, the opposite rumor sprang up. Maybe this disease was far more deadly for people with a European background. Maybe Black people got it less. Maybe Black people got it worse. Maybe … whatever.
The truth is, and always was, that there’s no reason to think that people of any race or region are more or less prone to catching COVID-19. There’s also very little evidence, despite a great deal of highly publicized speculation, that any strain of the disease is either more contagious or more deadly than any other.
Race does not affect COVID-19. But culture definitely does, and the best example of that may be Japan.
By most measures, Japan has done everything wrong when it comes to COVID-19. It was one of the first nations outside China to see cases of COVID-19. True, the nation did close schools early after the first cases arrived—and for Japan, that’s a very big deal—but the nation never entered into anything approximating a “lockdown.” For most of Japan, over most of the last six months, businesses have remained open and life has proceeded more or less apace. That’s in spite of the fact that cases popped up all over the nation, including a cluster that appeared in Tokyo taxi drivers, which would seem like a ready-made definition for worst possible vector. They didn’t shut down. They didn’t provide adequate testing. They didn’t implement the strict case-tracing that was so successful in South Korea.
But over five months after they logged their first case, Japan has recorded just 17,500 cases of COVID-19 and an official death count of 925. The whole nation of Japan, population 126 million, has confirmed fewer cases of COVID-19 than the state of Mississippi. And lower than 26 other states. How did that happen?
To find an answer requires swinging back around the world to Springfield, Missouri. That’s where two hairstylists who tested positive for COVID-19 went back to work and between them saw 140 clients. That these workers felt so pressured to return to their jobs that they risked infecting clients and coworkers is an awful example of the squeeze placed on American workers by a system that is, in many cases, leaving them with zero income. But something else interesting happened when the clients of those two stylists were traced—none of them had contacted COVID-19 when the state tracked them down.
Two people working in proximity to 140 others in a situation that required close contact for an extended period, and did not pass along the disease. That’s a marked contrast to situations like the cluster of cases traced back to a West Virginia church service. And the reason for that difference seems absolutely clear: Not only were the stylists cleaning up the area around their stations after each client, both they and the clients were required to wear masks throughout.
As it turns out, just two behavioral changes—frequent hand-washing and wearing masks—is enough to drastically reduce the possibility of catching COVID-19. It certainly doesn’t eliminate the risks, but it takes it down from very high, to quite low. A global study published earlier this month in medical journal The Lancet, confirmed that “face mask use could result in a large reduction in risk of infection.” When everyone is wearing masks, the possibility of catching COVID-19 may be reduced by 85% or more.
So why the hell isn’t everyone wearing a mask? Well, early on there was a lot of disinformation, some of it coming from people who really should have known better than to make such pronouncements.
The concern that health care workers would not have enough PPE as they treated patients was very well founded, but the message that went out of the public—that it didn’t make sense to wear a mask unless you had symptoms—was always bad. So bad, in fact, that that advice is undoubtedly responsible for several thousand lives in the U.S. alone.
Yes, there were reasons to be suspicious of the efficacy of masks early on. Viruses are small. If COVID-19 could be passed along, not just from droplets, but from “aerosols” of viruses left floating in the air when the droplets following a cough or sneeze dried out, then masks might provide little benefit. But as it turns out, it appears that masks provide a very large benefit.
If 70% of Americans wore masks in public, it would provide an effect that mimicked the much-sought after “herd immunity” until a vaccine becomes available. If 80% of Americans wore masks in public, it might push the rate of transmission so low that, well before the end of the year, America would be in the position of China or South Korea or Japan—fighting the occasional local flare up, rather than going forward in a fog of rising cases and impending doom.
There are states who put in place mask requirements—mostly in the Northeast, and mostly during the fearful ramp-up of the outbreak around New York City. But those states are few, and it’s unclear how many of them are still enforcing those rules.
We don’t need guidelines on mask use. We don’t need more FDA suggestions about mask use. We need a nationwide requirement that all people wear masks over both mouth and nose while in public areas, always, for the duration of the emergency. And keep them on, even when there’s a television camera pointed your way.
Instead we’ve got “smoking doesn’t kill” Mike Pence, the titular head of the coronavirus task force, refusing to wear a mask. And we’ve got Florida Gov. Mike DeSantis who has been so resistant to putting on a mask that when called on to demonstrate, he put it on sideways. And above all we’ve got the guy who worries that a mask might mar his perfect application of whatever that orange stuff really is; the guy who equates wearing a mask with slavery.
If everyone would wear a mask, practice at least some level of social distancing, and wash their hands when possible, reopening could happen with greatly reduced risk. If everyone would wear a mask, COVID-19 cases would be headed down, not up. If everyone would wear a mask, it would save tens of thousands of lives in the next few months.
But Republicans are instead chasing people who are wearing masks, and sometimes assaulting people who are wearing masks, and even barring people from their stores if they are wearing masks. It’s almost as if they’re determined to rack up the biggest body count available. But at least they’ll die knowing how they owned those libs.