Who was that masked man?

After China shut itself down to suppress successfully the first wave of the coronavirus, Beijing was hit with a second wave two weeks ago. It was about the worst possible case: multiple infections originating in the biggest wet market in Asia, which handled 80% of all fresh food brought into Beijing. This meant streams of people and produce being brought in from all over the country and the world, and direct links from that market to almost every place in Beijing. Yet two weeks after the initial report (and so probably five or six weeks after the first case), the numbers are falling, and the Beijing health authorities are cautiously beginning to proclaim victory.

While I’m not in love with the Chinese government I can recognize when they do well, and it seems to me that after the initial month of lying about the virus, they have done a textbook example of best practices for handling a pandemic. As a first reaction, knowing essentially nothing of the specifics of the virus, they evidently decided doing too much was safer than doing too little, and so shut down the whole country for three months until the infection level was near zero everywhere. Any hotspot in the country has the potential to colonize elsewhere, so only by controlling it everywhere can a country begin to feel secure. For the new Beijing outbreak in June, the government, knowing more about how the virus spreads than they did in January, were able to be more measured and focused in their response. Only the immediate areas with clusters of sick people were shut down; the rest of the city was just cautioned to remain careful. And massive amounts of testing is being done so the decision makers, as much as possible, know the state of the outbreak before it shows up in hospitalizations. 

But  my purpose here is not to compare the policies of the US and China in facing down the new coronavirus. I did a Facebook post on that, and clearly the Chinese effort was vastly more effective. Rather, I’d like to comment on a couple of issues with masks, one of the main pillars of the Chinese health effort.

I have to admit, when this whole thing started I didn’t want to wear a mask. They are uncomfortable and inconvenient, and all western sources said they were ineffective. Thus I viewed the Chinese using masks as kind of an amulet, where people felt safer because it was something they could do, even though the “something” was useless (kind of like airport security). I wore one into stores only because it was required, and because I didn’t want to spend the time until my next visa application would be refused sitting home under house arrest.

But as time passed my smug certainty began to waver. The first blow was when it was clarified that masks were intended to protect other people, not the wearer. This put my reluctance to wear one in a different light; surrounded by people who cared enough for me to put themselves to this minor discomfort I felt selfish to accept the benefit without reciprocating. In addition, once it was discovered that people could pass the virus on before showing symptoms, I recognized that any comparison to flu or SARS (which I and others were making) did not hold. Unlike for SARS, checking temperature and isolating people with symptoms would not work. Everyone is potentially presymptomatic, and while imperfect masks may still allow some transmissions, they will reduce the probability. And then the Center for Disease Control backed off on their claim that masks were useless. I still go without a mask when hiking or biking on remote mountain roads, but stopping for water or passing through a more populated area I pull one out and put it on. 

I’m disillusioned with the selfish attitude in the US. It may be argued that the government does not have the right to force people to wear masks - but reasonable people should choose to wear them to protect the more vulnerable. And even if one views the government as overreaching, it is not as if they are imposing a national ID card or taking away guns from law-abiding citizens. While it is no longer novel to point it out, pants can be uncomfortable too, and health codes require bottoms be covered in stores, yet few complain that wearing pants infringes on their liberty. (imagine if Mr. Trump’s rallies were held pants-optional). From late January when the epidemic in China was first publicized it took about a month for the threat of the virus to be understood and my view to evolve to where I understood the severity of the problem, but at least I was open enough about it to admit I had been wrong and change my tune by the time the contagion showed up in the US. The evidence was there from the start for anyone who cared to look.

60 years ago John Kennedy said “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”. Just 20 years later President Reagan asked “Are *you* better off than you were 4 years ago?” This shift from focusing on a person’s place in society to focusing on the individual exposes the difference in the two generations. Rights may not be infringed upon, but small sacrifices that provide disproportionately large benefits to others should be willingly made.

This me-first attitude is not limited to masks. It is the same one the NRA brings to the gun debate. Despite reports that the majority of gun owners support stricter gun regulation (Time Magazine reported in 2018 that 69% of gun owners supported “comprehensive background checks”), the NRA continues with its scorched-earth policy of blasting any proposed limitation. Even granting that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed” is not modified by its context, the toll of dead, wounded, and terrorized people, including children, seems to be a huge price to pay for relatively unfettered gun access, a price paid by those who do not in general desire the benefit of the freedom. (By the way, I have more sympathy for the antiabortion crowd. To someone who believes abortion is killing babies any form of compromise is monstrous. Waiting an extra two weeks to get your gun does not compare)

So I’m disappointed that there is not more voluntary compliance with the requests and orders to wear masks in the US. But there is something else that also bothers me. Back when I still looked disdainfully on the masked sheeple in China the main prop for my belief was the clear statement by the Center for Disease Control that there was no reason for a healthy person not involved in health care to wear a mask. I’m not a doctor so I would hesitate to contradict experts, and sure, Chinese doctors were urging the importance of wearing masks, but I told myself they were controlled by their government, unlike their American counterparts, independent researchers responsible only to the public. Clearly this was a case where our system was superior to the state controlled media in China.

So you can imagine my reaction when the CDC started backing off on its initial recommendation, finally on April 3rd reversing it and recommending everyone wear a mask. And what was the reason for this flipflop? According to Dr. Fauci in a June interview with The Street, the original advice that masks weren’t needed was to keep people from stockpiling them so they would be available for hospitals. I felt betrayed, but it wasn’t the first time government official lied to try to manipulate American public opinion.

In 2003 President Bush was pushing for a war with Iraq. Like many others I saw no reason a war was needed - until the president revealed internal intelligence confirmed Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used either directly or indirectly, through terrorists, against the US and other western countries. Reluctantly, given this assurance, I felt there was no choice but to proceed. European countries disputed this, but what can you expect from places who could freely piggyback on US strength, and were clearly out to take what advantage they could get. “Let's see what they say when we show them the actual weapons”, I thought with pleasure. After US swept through Iraq, and after “mission accomplished”, there was nothing found that the government could even pretend to spin as a WMD program. Later news reports indicated the internal intelligence “proving” weapon development was known to be questionable, at best, at the time it was cited.

It’s ironic that at the same time the US was criticizing China for lying about its coronavirus numbers its representatives were lying about the value of masks. People who loudly trumpet American values often seem to have little faith in them in practice. The whole mask debacle shows perhaps many Americans do need to be tricked into acting responsibly because they will not do so on their own. But even more depressing is seeing a race to the bottom between self centered, clueless American citizens and a politically-motivated and manipulative United States government.