Freedom vs. Public Health: a False Dichotomy

There has been a new addition to the tedious U.S. culture wars: mask wearing. It didn’t have to be this way. A simple tactic to protect oneself and also limit the spread of Covid-19 did not have to become a political hot potato. Wearing a mask did not have to mean one supports secular science over freedom, but Trump made it so. He can back-pedal now – as he started to, by wearing a mask publicly on July 10 – and deny it all he wants, but the damage is done.

Thousands maybe millions of people declined to protect themselves and others, because Trump was perceived to be against masks. He even let it be known at one point that he took it personally and considered those wearing masks to be criticizing him. No, they weren’t. They were stopping the spread of a plague. And, to get this clear – since public messaging has been so mixed up on this – they were and are protecting themselves. Wearing a mask is not all about altruism. Sixty percent less chance of becoming infected if you wear a mask is a good reason to do it. Masks keep the wearers alive.

Unfortunately, the strictures of public health during a lethal pandemic have been equated with…drumroll – that old American bogeyman, communism – the spectre of hysterical capitalists for almost two centuries. That this happened so quickly and thoroughly in the U.S. hints at one main cause: a large segment of the American public’s extreme susceptibility to sub-moronic ideological brainwashing, of the sort seen on Fox News. No matter that without health there is little freedom: stretched out on a hospital bed, delirious with covid and intubated – how free is such a person? Trump and Fox are not concerned with that. It’s the idiotic, doctrinaire messaging about keeping free markets purring along and the knee-jerk response of right-wing militias storming statehouses that counts for them. Now that Trump has once worn a mask, the new target will doubtless be re-opening schools. But this should not become another war zone for the dogmatic shock troops. States where the pestilence rages like a fire-storm are simply not ready to re-open schools, period. And that is not a communist plot.

The Trumpenvolk grew up on anticommunism. Anyone telling them to do anything is taken as prima facie evidence of bolshevism. The complex series of arguments and the realities one has to grok to comply willingly with the dictates of a modern health regimen are simply beyond the worldview of many Americans, who consider it their God-given right to infect anybody they please by not wearing a mask or, another example, by refusing to vaccinate their children against tetanus or measles.

So who are these obtuse Trump followers? They are not the white working class. The lie that this group caused his 2016 electoral victory has been repeated ad nauseam. First off, the working class is not predominately white and male. Secondly, according to author and activist Sharon Smith, one study shows Trump did not flip working class voters, rather the Democrats lost them. After all, 100 million eligible voters stayed home in 2016. According to activist and professor Charlie Post, the 2016 electorate “was more disproportionately well-off than in the last three elections.”

For those who persist with the propaganda that Trump’s base is working class – they need only look at his policies, starting with his grotesque tax cuts for billionaires. Trump’s base is Wall Street, the professional corporate class, the right-wing affluent, oligarchs, their hangers-on and other assorted plutocrats. Scare up a few losers in militias from their Mid-Western bunkers and voila! Proof that he represents the so-called white working class. But the facts don’t back up the public relations stunts.

Sadly, consistently faulty messaging about this virus has enabled Trump to pose false dichotomies, like freedom versus public health, and get away with it. In addition to the erroneous messaging about who masks protect – everyone, including the wearer – for quite a while health experts expressed uncertainty about whether masks worked at all. Some said the advice against mask wearing was to prevent hoarding of a necessary medical staple. Other experts were genuinely confused. While their honesty about their ambivalence is to be commended, they could have learned something from Asian societies, which have controlled coronavirus outbreaks throughout the twenty-first century – by wearing masks. This cultural obtuseness on the part of our scientific and medical mandarins may well derive from cultural snobbery – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Another piece of false messaging, more understandable, was that the virus wasn’t aerosolized. Now WHO concedes that it is. Also that asymptomatic people with the disease weren’t infectious; now all experts agree they are. And then there was the worst messaging mistake of all – that only older people get deathly ill from Covid-19.

This last bit of misinformation led to the vast, disastrous experiment which has played out across the American South and West, in fraternities and on beaches, where young people have thrown caution to the winds. And guess what? Now they’re cramming the hospitals. And the death rate is rising again. It’s not senior citizens in Florida who need those ICU beds. Senior citizens have been protecting themselves. They’ve been socially distancing in far greater numbers than the young. Senior citizens don’t care what nonsense Trump spouts about the economy. They got the message. Covid-19 is a death sentence for older people – and they know it.

These messaging errors were understandable. Covid-19 was a new disease and doctors and scientists did not know what they were dealing with. But Trump took advantage of their quandary. As a result, a steady sewage of lies has flowed out of the white house since day one. It would be a comedy, if it weren’t, well, a tragedy. Trump has leapt on every scientific ambiguity and exploited it, because for him this isn’t a catastrophic pandemic, no. He sees it first and foremost as a public relations problem. And he’s good at public relations. For him, this is the latest episode of the Trump Show.

In this latest installment, Trump reveals a battle between freedom-loving Americans and radical, left-wing public health departments. No matter that this dichotomy is false. Now matter that it’s all a set-up. It distracts from the lethal incompetence of this presidency. It’s a smokescreen to conceal the negligent homicide perpetrated by a totally feckless administration. It’s theater, not political leadership.

Imagine how a real leader like FDR would have handled this crisis. He would not have befogged people’s minds with bluster about freedom versus health. He would have provided straight talk to Americans about what they need to do to maintain freedom FROM disease. A total national lockdown for a few weeks or months, directed by the federal government when the pandemic first hit the U.S. would have saved tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand lives and millions of illnesses and ultimately less harmed the economy than closing down briefly and not long or thoroughly enough and then having to do it again. One uniform initial national lockdown would have ended this nightmare. China did it. South Korea did it. New Zealand did it. Spain did it. Germany did it. Even Italy, hardest hit of all, did it.

When will the U.S. do it? Probably not until there’s a different resident in the white house. And by then the damage will be even more unimaginable, even more astronomical than it is now. But this is not rocket science. It is doable and has in fact been done for centuries. Humanity has known at least since the Middle Ages that in times of plague you lock down and socially distance.

If the covid conflagration, now so volcanic, is to be extinguished, Washington must act: not with bailouts for rich corporations, but with support for citizens, so they can stay home during lockdown; not with parades and military fanfare, but with the hard work of governing; not with mere presidential lip-service about getting supplies where they’re needed, while in fact hijacking states’ medical purchases, but with real application of the National Defense Authorization Act to produce and distribute the necessary protective gear to doctors and nurses; with clear consistent messaging about how long a lockdown must last and under what conditions it can be lifted. Governors can’t do it alone. Their actions must be centrally coordinated. This is a national catastrophe. This is why we have a national government.


Eve Ottenberg is a novelist and journalist. Her latest book is Busybody. She can be reached at her website.