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It’s at times like this that one might be inclined to conclude politics and prudence are complete strangers.
How else can we explain the bizarre manner in which the simple act of wearing a face covering to help minimize the spread of a deadly disease has become a political flashpoint capable of inflaming partisan anger and prompting some to defiantly reject the most reasonable, simple and sound of evidence-backed medical advice?
Somehow, in the three-plus months since the COVID-19 pandemic careened into the lives of North Americans, the clash between health-care expertise and political advantage-seeking has turned dealing with the ravages of the novel coronavirus in the United States into something other than the pursuit of the best possible public-health outcome.
The COVID-19 face mask has become a symbol of a deeply divided America; an America whose coronavirus infection rates have continued to accelerate at breakneck speed while most other countries in its demographic peer group have effectively flattened the curve.
At the forefront of the face mask debate and the larger issue of our southern neighbour’s losing COVID-19 battle is, of course, the question of leadership. U.S. President Donald Trump’s so far inept strategy for dealing with the pandemic has been limited mostly to denial, summed up by his continuing refusal to wear a face mask in public, reportedly because he feels it would be viewed as an outward sign of weakness.
Many of the president’s supporters have followed his lead; some have taken the anti-mask animus several steps further, claiming the suggestion to wear one is an assault on civil liberties ("medical tyranny," according to one maskless militant) and criticizing those who cover their faces as fainthearted or un-American.
Mr. Trump’s earliest reaction to the pandemic was to deny the disease posed any danger to Americans; by refusing to take decisive action to limit its spread — opting instead to voice the belief it would "magically" disappear by mid-April, and touting quack remedies rather than encouraging basic behavioural changes — the president, by example, set the stage for the outbreak that has racked up nearly 2.7 million confirmed cases and 130,000 American deaths.
Through it all, Mr. Trump has consistently declined to publicly adopt the simple but effective measure of face covering, despite telling a Fox Business interviewer this week that he’s "all for masks" and would wear one if he were in "a tight situation" with other people.
Of note this week is that U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence, otherwise an in-lockstep follower of his boss’s positions and behaviours, broke ranks with Mr. Trump by wearing a mask at recent public events.
Other Republican lawmakers have veered suddenly away from their anti-mask positions, but much of the Trump-supporting public remains unwavering in its rejection of pandemic face coverings.
It is, in a word, dumbfounding. Wearing a mask to protect others from the virus is not an admission of personal weakness or political betrayal; it’s an expression of kindness, caring and commitment to the common good.
Freedom-obsessed Americans often cite founding father and noted orator Patrick Henry, whose 1775 declaration to the Second Virginia Convention included the breathless exhortation, "Give me liberty, or give me death!"
By refusing to cover up, those defiant, face mask-dismissive denizens of the rhetorical Land of the Free (as well as a few misinformed malcontents on this side of the border) are eliminating the binary choice, insisting instead that liberty and death be considered as a macabre package deal.
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