Click here to print page

In America, wearing of masks an index of a divided country

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic it has been universally acknowledged that the wearing of masks is one of the best ways of containing and preventing the infectious spread of the virus. Generally, around the world, people have recognised the validity of wearing masks and so there have been no marked protests to doing so. The glaring exception is the United States, where many people are stubbornly refusing to wear masks.

To some, to wear or not to wear is an assertion of their constitutional rights. Many do not like politicians telling them what to do and so to not wear a mask is an assertion of their freedoms. To me, the protest and defiance speak to the wide cultural and political divide that is in the country. This did not start with the COVID-19 crisis, but has been placed into stark reality by it.

It boggles the mind that, at an elementary and basic level, people cannot see the distinction of scientific imperatives over cultural and political ideological commitments; between their own health and that of their families and friends by observing health protocols and their adherence to long-held beliefs that bear no relevance to science; and that this virus does not care what people believe or don't believe.

Yet, at the apex of this incredulous defiance of science sits the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who shines in the face of his supporters in his petulant refusal to wear a mask. If the basic understanding from his health experts that wearing a mask saves lives — which it does — is to be believed, then his refusal not to wear one flies in the face of those concerns and basic common sense. Furthermore, it reveals a president who is willing to recklessly disregard a protocol that has been proven to work.

An effective leader is one who leads by example, which says a lot about the leadership being provided by this president. The federal government, through its experts, asks people to wear masks. He himself has supported this protocol. Yet, he does not wear one in high-profile meetings at the White House. Even when a personal valet and a high-profile assistant to the vice-president tested positive for the virus, he has refused to wear one with the explanation that he is tested daily.

He clearly does not understand the nature of the virus and how easily it can be transmitted from one person to another; that you can be tested at 9:00 am and get infected at 4:00 pm if you get exposed to someone who has the virus. He perhaps believes that it is only when you are symptomatic that you can spread the virus. But, as has been well established, asymptomatic spread is one of the most prominent ways in which the virus gets around in the population. Thus, the need to wear a mask. It is hardly a choice if you do not want to be infected or to infect others. It is that simple. Only the most boneheaded person would put up a fight against this simple and life-saving request.

Wearing or not wearing a mask at this time is not an aesthetic statement of how it makes you look. It can be a matter of life and death. It is certainly a matter of a horrible disrespect for the well-being of others, a situation which clearly fits into the president's non-empathetic demeanour. As far as can be ascertained, there is no medical condition that the president has that prevents him from wearing a mask. He may believe that wearing one makes him look weak, or may interfere with his daily grooming. But, at the very least, as a leader, he should understand what it means to mirror in his own behaviour what he is expecting in others. I forgot for a moment that I am talking about President Trump.

On a graver and more insidious level, it has become clear to analysts, political pundits, and others who concern themselves with these things that the president's refusal to wear a mask is grounded in his political agenda for the coming presidential elections in November. There is no doubt that he is obsessed with polls that suggest that the nation is not pleased with his handling of the pandemic and that lives have been unnecessarily lost as a result of his halting, tepid and otherwise non-robust response to containing the virus.

Insidiously, it seems to the president that wearing masks is not the best optic which suggests that the country is winning the war against the virus. It is to project weakness at a time he should be projecting strength and sending the message that the worst is behind the American people.

Mask or no mask, vaccine or no vaccine, the country must be reopened. The economy must come roaring back. The Dow Industrials must once again soar since this is his best metric of a growing, robust economy. But he is in a bind, for at least 60 per cent of the American people know instinctively that the worst has not passed and that the virus is still out there. Sadly, the dead are still piling up, and by the time this column is published the number might have surpassed 100,000.

This is nothing to sneeze at or to be cavalier about, whatever your political commitments. In the light of these facts which stare us in the face daily the defiance to wear masks is shameless and unworthy of the leader of the so-called free world. It is juvenile in all its proportions and widens the cultural and political divide in the country. At a time when the country should be united, it is demonstrating its worse propensities for tribal division, both in how economic resources are distributed and in the glaring disparities evidenced in the allocation of health resources across the country. America has been brought to a sad low, and the whole world has a front seat to the tragicomedy that is being played out.


Oliver Clarke and Dr Freddie Hickling

This column records its tribute to two great Jamaican patriots — Oliver Clarke and Fredrick Hickling — who died recently. Both men were consummate professionals in their respective fields.

In Oliver Clarke we saw a passion for press freedom enshrined in his belief that people must be free to express themselves, even in the face of great opposition from political authorities and other forces that would suppress their voice. His service to the country in so many spheres is not only admirable, but a sterling example of what can and must be done to advance the best interests of the country.

Dr Hickling, in his inimitable way, revolutionised the field of psychiatry in Jamaica. He did not accept the old methodologies as necessarily relevant to a people still under the trammels of a post-colonial psychology that demeaned their sense of pride in self and what they could become. He gave respectability to those who were regarded as “mad” in his sterling work at the Bellevue Hospital. He respected the dignity of people whom others would easily push to the periphery of society.

We are blessed to have had these two patriots among us. Their work will continue to live in their legacy to us. May they now find peace in their rest from the toils of this troubled world. My thoughts and prayers are with their families and close friends.


Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or