Maskless supporters cheer as they listen to US President Donald Trump speak during a campaign rally on June 20 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The number of new Covid-19 cases in the United States is hitting levels not seen since the early part of the pandemic in April. Photo: AFP / Nicholas Kamm

It was a tough week in the United States, where Covid-19 continues to rampage through much of the nation unchecked. Infections are now up to more than 40,000 a day and will likely continue to rise. While much of Europe and East Asia seem to have this wave of the epidemic contained, it rages like wildfire back home, and as I sit in relative safety on the western side of the Pacific, I can’t help but give thanks that I’m here and not there. 

I say this not out of any sense of smugness but, rather, to highlight the fact that South Korea – the country I’ve called home for more than 15 years – has done a bang-up job of dealing with this crisis. The Koreans have been reactive and organized, meeting each outbreak cluster with lightning speed.

Having already wrestled with viral scares such as SARS and MERS, Koreans were prepared for this most recent onslaught – and it shows. And while the government and health-care infrastructure deserve praise, the loftier kudos should go to the people as a whole, who’ve largely obeyed the guidelines.

Perhaps most important in that regard, they almost always wear masks.

Anyone taking an even cursory look at the news knows that this hasn’t been the case in the US. Mask-wearing has been slow to catch on, met with indifference, at first, and then with open hostility among some segments of the population.

Some Americans just didn’t take the threat of Covid-19 seriously. Others bristled at the idea of inconveniencing themselves for the common good. They considered it a Big Brother-mandated intrusion, an affront to deeply held notions of individual liberty. 

Like most anything in the US, it didn’t take long before mask-wearing became politicized, with most “liberals” opting in and many “conservatives” opting out. The toxin of America’s rampant tribalism even managed to seep into something as seemingly benign as covering your face in the midst of a pandemic.

To do so in most of the world would be a no-brainer. Only in America could such a thing become weaponized as a way to score political points. When I tried to explain the situation back home to my Korean wife, she just shook her head and gasped, “That’s insane.” 

How did America arrive at such a place, where getting everyone to adopt even the most basic of health protocols is akin to extracting teeth? Look no farther than its leadership. To say that President Donald Trump has bungled the response to Covid-19 would be a compliment. He not only has proved incompetent but has consistently risen to the level of willful negligence.

Trump has set an example of what not to do, continually playing down the need for people to mask up, even mocking a reporter who asked a question while wearing a mask. He has shown up to all of his latest appearances mask-free, including his dud of a rally in Tulsa, where his 6,200 supporters were mostly barefaced as well. At his recent Fox News town hall in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the network required all attendees to be masked, yet the Don refused to don.

Trump, along with Vice-President Mike Pence – who notoriously toured the Mayo Clinic in late May without a mask – are clearly signaling to their supporters that masks are not necessary, that they’re just something worn by the “other side” as a kind of political statement. They’re fueling the furnace of animosity and discord at a time when the country is aching to come together. 

Trump’s base, of course, has taken the bait. During the anti-quarantine protests in late April, Trump supporters gathered with plenty of firepower but almost no masks. Right-wing bloviator and Trump surrogate Rush Limbaugh has called masks a “symbol of fear” and referred to Democrats as “mask-wearing freaks.”

The social media are rife with videos of “Karens” melting down in refusal to wear masks at establishments that require them, and a recent viral recording of a city hall meeting in Florida features a cavalcade of unhinged speakers babbling and ranting conspiracy theory garbage – all in fevered opposition to the wearing of masks.

Most egregious, perhaps, is a county sheriff back in my home state of Washington who, in response to Governor Jay Inslee’s order requiring masks in public, vowed not to enforce the law while encouraging residents to ignore it: “Don’t be sheep,” he said, to hearty cheers and applause.

Reports on the ground paint a more complex picture that doesn’t always neatly break down politically. It appears that some people eschewing the mask are just youths pumped up on the feeling of invincibility that’s natural at their age, while there are others who simply don’t care.

That said, things seem to be generally playing out along ideological lines, at least according to the people I’ve talked with back home. I’m told that in the deep blue bubble of Seattle a good nine out of 10 residents are currently masked in public, while up near the Canadian border in the small, conservative town of Blaine, it’s just the opposite, with a masking rate of only about 10%. 

In red (Republican-led) states, things are much worse. While I’m told that masks are commonplace in liberal enclaves such as Austin and Asheville, people outside of these centers are largely flouting the suggestion to cover up. It should then come as no surprise that the hotbeds of the latest infections are the conservative strongholds of Arizona, Texas and Florida. Covid-19 is currently running amok in these states.

It’s just a matter of time before the virus strikes deep into the heart of rural America, which also happens to be the most fertile ground for Trump’s support. When the virus first hit Seattle and New York, the prevailing wisdom in flyover country was that it was an urban, liberal problem. They’re sadly about to find out just how wrong they were. 

Still, there are signs that Americans are finally waking up to the efficacy of the mask. Polls show that an overwhelming majority support their usage, while many older Republicans – fully aware of the scope and lethality of this crisis – are now masking up.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden never appears in public without a mask, and vows to make them mandatory should he win in November. Republican Senator Mark Rubio recently stated that “Everyone should just wear a damn mask,” and even former vice-president Dick Cheney – hardly an icon of the left – has come out in support of this simple yet effective gesture.

Still, people fight it. They mistake selfishness for liberty and equate social responsibility with tyranny. Moreover, in the eyes of the Trump cult, everything the perceived liberals support must be reflexively opposed, even if that means throwing reason to the dogs. We’ve seen it in their continual denial of climate change, and we’re seeing it now.  

As for South Korea, this is an extremely polarized place where conservatives hate liberals with the kind of vehemence and intensity found in the United States. Still, everyone wears a mask. This is the difference. There is a baseline of social awareness and obligation that has allowed them to get on top of things quickly.

While the right and the left may be at each other’s throats, they know how to put it all aside when the national welfare is at stake. Most important, one side doesn’t reject science just because the other side embraces it – an equation that, when you think about it, is pure madness.

  

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Chris Tharp

Chris Tharp is the author of The Worst Motorcycle in Laos and Dispatches from the Peninsula. His award-winning writing has appeared in National Geographic Traveller, Green Mountains Review, and other publications. He lives in Busan, South Korea, with his wife and a houseful of animals.