No, Masks Aren’t Part of an Anti-Trump Conspiracy

Those who follow me on Twitter know that one of my irritations with the government response to the COVID-19 crisis was the early insistence from the Surgeon General and CDC that wearing masks (that cover the nose and mouth) was completely ineffective at protecting people from the coronavirus. At times, there was even the suggestion that doing so was counterproductive.

The narrative didn’t make a whole lot of sense at the time. After all, we were talking about a respiratory disease. And it’s not as if wearing a mask around infected people to block the spread of germs was a new or uncommon practice. It’s been done all over the world since before any of us were born.

As it turned out, the government was indeed being disingenuous. Dishonest is the better word.

At the time, federal agencies were concerned with a national shortage of medical-style masks for our country’s health care workers (who would be treating an increasing number of coronavirus patients). If regular folks had gobbled them all up, the problem would have gotten much worse. Thus, the answer was a disinformation campaign designed to discourage consumers from buying them.

It apparently worked. And in late March, as infection rates skyrocketed and our national strategy switched from containment to mitigation, the CDC reversed itself. The agency began recommending that everyone cover their face when out among others.

While I’m sympathetic to the situation the government was in, outright lying to Americans was a bad move. It assuredly kept people who already had masks from wearing them, as well as removed any incentive for people to make their own masks, or even wear something as simple as a bandana when they left their home.

Masks aren’t as effective as social distancing, but they do put up a barrier between the droplets that fly out of people’s mouths (when they talk, cough, or sneeze) and individuals within close proximity, which is a common transmission route of COVID-19.

In other words, masks do provide some protection for people. One can only wonder how much slower the virus’s spread could have been, had Americans understood weeks earlier the benefits of wearing them.

Anyway, that fiasco is behind us. Most Americans now get that masks are helpful. Unfortunately, some popular right-wing political commentators seem to want to take us backwards on the issue.

Earlier this week, Vice President Mike Pence took a good amount of criticism over a trip he made to the Mayo Clinic. News footage of a meeting with medical workers and patients revealed that Pence, unlike everyone else on camera, wasn’t wearing a mask. This amounted to a violation of Mayo’s health policies.

Unsurprisingly, Trump defenders in the media felt inclined to defend Pence. And the only way to defend a guy not wearing a mask, in a medical facility that requires masks, is to discount the notion that masks are even important in the first place.

Fox News’s Laura Ingraham was up for the task.

On her show Wednesday night, Ingraham explained that “social control over large populations is achieved through fear and intimidation and suppression of free thought. Conditioning the public through propaganda is also key, new dogmas replace good old common sense.”

Ironically, Ingraham wasn’t referring to the dishonesty campaign I described above, where federal officials under the Trump administration fooled Americans into believing masks were of no benefit in our battle against the coronavirus. No, she was instead taking aim at members of the mainstream media who criticized Pence for his negligence.

“They’ll say this whole mask thing is settled science, just like they do with climate change,” Ingraham said. “Of course, it’s not and they know it. Our own experts have gone from ‘masks aren’t necessary’ to ‘masks are essential, you have to wear them when you go jogging’ in just a few weeks’ time.”

Of course, Ingraham had it somewhat backwards. It wasn’t “settled science” that compelled federal officials to tell us that “masks aren’t necessary.” It was supply and demand concerns. Medical science didn’t factor into it at all. And that’s unfortunate, because if these people had presented the settled science to the public, I think Americans would have been better prepared for the crisis, and our country would be in a better position right now.

As for telling people that masks are “essential,” and that they must be worn while jogging, I’m not sure which “experts” Ingraham is referring to. I’ve certainly heard recommendations, from officials like President Trump himself, that Americans should wear masks when they’re out in public (as in close to other people). And that guidance, as I described above, makes perfect sense. But I haven’t heard any dire warnings about a need for joggers to wear masks — not if they’re maintaining a distance of at least six feet from others. It sounds to me like Ingraham was just tossing out a straw man there.

Regardless, Ingraham thinks she knows the real reason for why masks are now being widely promoted, and to explain it she quoted (or perhaps summarized) something Rush Limbaugh recently said on his radio show:

“The virus itself, as it weakens and states start reopening… The media that has been selling this panic, panic, panic for weeks and weeks and weeks — they have fewer images to sell their hysteria to justify continued lockdowns. But the masks, they’re kind of a constant reminder… You see the masks, and you think you’re not safe. You are not back to normal, not even close.”

Well there you have it, I guess. Masks aren’t being hyped because they block contagious droplets from noses and mouths. It’s because of some U.S. media conspiracy to end capitalism, or to end Trump’s presidency, or maybe both! And the conspiracy is so far-reaching that the rest of the world is doing it too!

I’m sorry, but this is just plain stupid. Worse than that, it’s dangerous. Millions of people watch Ingraham’s show every weeknight (along with the rest of Fox News’s prime-time lineup), and they buy into a lot of such nonsense.

Most of these viewers are rather old, and therefore are at a particularly high risk of serious health complications (and even death) if they get the virus. Why on earth would anyone who values the human condition be suggesting to them that they (or those around them) are contributing to our country’s economic ruin, and the unseating of a president they like, just by taking the simple preventative measure of wearing a mask?

Is defending a gaffe by Mike Pence really worth convincing our most vulnerable citizens to take unnecessary chances with their health and the health of others? Are the ratings spawned by tribal politics and our grievance culture really that important?

Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to both questions.