COVID-19 and the Masque of the Red States

Now that the pandemic is raging in the South and West, Trump’s governors finally are face-to-face with reality. Wear your damn mask.

I’ve bored family and friends with this story for years. Now it’s your turn.

A long time ago, I was living in a New York apartment across from a park which, along with its bocce and handball courts, featured a well-worn, dusty baseball field. One spring, the city decided to re-sod it. They brought in rolls of new, luscious, emerald green turf that when unfurled brightened the whole block.

One thing: the parks department posted signs that warned everyone not to walk on it quite yet, that it would take a little time for the sod roots to bind to the soil. Just wait a bit, they said, and then we’d have this beautiful, restored little piece of parkland.

You probably know what happened. A few people refused to follow the signs. They pushed over chicken wire barriers to tromp around, walk their dogs, and basically destroyed the new grass before it had a chance to take hold. The city never came back to try again—why bother?

I’ve thought of this little story several times over the last few weeks, a tiny microcosm from the past for the present, as I’ve watched some of the people in my neighborhood refuse to wear masks or observe social distancing. They’re heedless and unthinking; if young, they believe themselves invincible, without a care about what their recklessness could do to them and the rest of us. Freedom!

Overall, after some initial missteps, here in New York State we’ve had excellent results from self-isolating, mask wearing and the other precautions the state and our communities have ordered. State and local leadership has done a decent job and after weeks of illness, our disease and death rates now are very low. Our medical and emergency professionals have been exceptional. Every worker who has braved hazards to preserve essential services should be valued, applauded and at all times protected.

So now that we’ve achieved some stability around here, I’m worried, as are many others, that the disease might ramp up again in these parts—not just because we have our own share of yahoos who won’t take precautions but because the levels now are skyrocketing out of control across the south and west, faster and further than anticipated. On Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci,  director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted we could soon have as many as 100,000 new cases a day.

Most of the current most highly infected are red states which reopened too soon, sycophantically following the lead of our Dissembler-in-Chief, Donald Trump, a man who places his reelection above the nation’s health and safety, as well as the governors and legislators who fell into lockstep behind him—even going so far, in such states as Florida and Texas, as to manipulate or attempt to conceal data.

So now there are 128,000 US dead, 2.64 million confirmed cases that we know of, and 45.5 million unemployed, victims not just of a virus but of ineptitude, duplicity and ideology. Herein lies a horror tale, perhaps best described by columnist Paul Krugmanat The New York Times. “The question… isn’t why ‘America’ has failed to deal effectively with the pandemic, he writes. “It’s why the G.O.P. has in effect allied itself with the coronavirus…

“… [T]hey pushed for premature reopening because they wanted things to return to what they seemed to be back in February. Indeed, just a few days ago the same Trump officials who initially assured us that COVID-19 was no big deal were out there dismissing the risks of a second wave.”

Krugman further suggests that the Republican party regards COVID as they do climate change: “… it doesn’t want you to fear impersonal threats that require an effective policy response, not to mention inconveniences like wearing face masks; it wants you to be afraid of people you can hate—people of a different race or supercilious liberals.

“So instead of dealing with COVID-19, Republican leaders and right-wing media figures have tried to make the pandemic into the kind of threat they want to talk about. It’s ‘kung flu,’ foisted on us by villainous Chinese. Or it’s a hoax perpetrated by the ‘medical deep state,’ which is just looking for a way to hurt Trump.”

The degree of the delusion staggers. Fueled by politics and self-interest, Trump and Pence ignore the facts and keep insisting that all is going well, although Pence, at least, is now advocating wearing a mask, as are other Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They at last seem to be waking up to the news that masks save lives—or more likely they saw the latest polls or that Goldman Sachs report that face coverings could save five percent of the GDP.

Nonetheless, the president insists the economy is great, he’s great and if it wasn’t for all that testing, we wouldn’t have so much of this awful disease—a stroke of logical genius similar to the person who can’t believe he’s overdrawn at the bank because he still has checks.

The depths of pettiness to which he and his cohort will go in their attempts to steal, distract and deceive remain breathtaking—from the distribution of medical equipment along partisan lines and allowing the distribution of faulty or inadequate testing to the sight of Trump campaign staff stripping social distancing stickers from the seats at that arena in Tulsa where the president’s misbegotten rally took place.

The Washington Post reported, “As part of its safety plan, arena management had purchased 12,000 do-not-sit stickers for Trump’s rally, intended to keep people apart by leaving open seats between attendees. On the day of the rally, event staff had already affixed them on nearly every other seat in the arena when Trump’s campaign told event management to stop and then began removing the stickers, hours before the president’s arrival…”

All of this continues to be urged on by the likes of Fox News, professional deniers who for the most part ply the party line to such a degree that as media columnist Margaret Sullivan notes, “Three serious research efforts have put numerical weight—yes, data-driven evidence—behind what many suspected all along: Americans who relied on Fox News, or similar right-wing sources, were duped as the coronavirus began its deadly spread. Dangerously duped…

“For too long, many devotees of most right-wing news decided they didn’t need to stay home. Others absorbed the idea that wearing a protective mask was an act of left-leaning partisanship.”

Conversely, to them, not wearing a mask becomes equally political. A study from the University of Montana, cited in Psychology Today, finds, that because “conservatives typically don’t support government restrictions, they are motivated to diminish the seriousness of the threat. If they took the threat more seriously, they would have to consider governmental measures that are incompatible with their beliefs.”

That said, “The investigators’ findings also suggest that with increasing experiences and impacts of coronavirus, politically ideology matters less in assessing the threat of the virus.” No kidding. It’s another explanation as to why in such 2016 Trump states as Florida, Arizona and Texas, where the virus now is raging, Republican governors are changing their tune when it comes to public safety.

As former Daily Show host Jon Stewart said on The View Monday, “Have you been in operating rooms? Surgeons wear masks, not because they listen to NPR and drive Volvos—they wear masks because that’s more sanitary.”

God willing, someday this pandemic may end. But prepare for another political fight when we finally get a vaccine. A May CNN poll found that “one third of Americans said they would not try to get vaccinated against COVID, even if the vaccine is widely available and low cost.” Good grief.

Have a safe and sane Fourth of July. Wear your damn mask.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer for Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.

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