The choice to wear or not to wear a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic has split America on partisan lines. Image: Twitter

Four months into the pandemic, the United States finds itself in a strange and disturbing situation. With only 4% of the world’s population, we account for 25% of the world’s Covid-19 cases and 25% of the deaths.

Instead of “flattening,” as Italy’s, Spain’s and other European countries’ curves have done, ours continues to rise.

Far from having tamed the virus, we’re recording record numbers of new cases – more than 50,000 a day. Yet, across the country we’ve been reopening. Only with the latest surge have fast-to-reopen states slowed or reversed the process.

It’s no longer a New York pandemic we’re talking about. The South and the West, which thought they were invulnerable, have led the surge. Rural America’s caseload has been growing faster than that of the nation as a whole. Meat-packing plants have become notorious hot spots.

As a country, we’ve wasted time on a bogus debate. The question should not have been whether to reopen. Reopening was inevitable. The question should have been how to reopen – how fast, which businesses in early phases and which in late, with what kind of tracking and testing, with what provisions for masks and distancing.

Because we didn’t think through the how, we bungled the reopening.

In the nation’s current condition, partly open but with the first wave of the disease accelerating, the most serious polarization is no longer left versus right or urban versus rural. It’s the fearful versus the fearless.

US President Donald Trump is offered a face mask. His administration has come under fire for mishandling the pandemic. Image: Facebook

The fearful are those, many but not all of them older people, who are willing to do whatever it takes to avoid being infected. They want to feel safe. They’re not frequenting bars, movies or, really, any place where people crowd together indoors. They wear masks and keep their distance and wish others would do the same.

The fearless are those, many but not all of them young people, who are determined to live life normally again regardless of the Covid-19 risks. A few think the coronavirus is a hoax. Most believe it’s real but are confident they will survive it easily if they contract it. They don’t see what good wearing masks and keeping distances will do them.

Unfortunately, the fearful and the fearless are working at cross-purposes. By sheltering in place, the fearful are holding up the economic recovery the fearless are working so hard to promote. By shunning masks and social distancing, the fearless are giving the fearful more reasons to think they’re safest staying home.

There’s an awareness gap at work here, as well. While the fearful appreciate and regret that they’re slowing the economy’s recovery, the fearless don’t seem to understand that they’re contributing to the fears of the fearful.

Ultimately, it will take a vaccine to end those fears. In the meantime, though, the fearless can do a couple of things to ease them. One is distancing; there’s little doubt that staying several feet away reduces the spread of the disease.

The other thing touches a nerve: masks. Having spent eight years living in Tokyo and nine in Hong Kong, I have been surprised at how controversial masks are in the United States. In Asian cities, people with common colds wear them routinely. There’s no law requiring them to. They do it out of common courtesy, to minimize the risk of giving their illnesses to others.

How much good do masks do? People argue about that, but there is a fair consensus that they provide at least some help. One recent scientific study suggests “a large reduction in risk of infection.”

And while a single anecdote doesn’t prove a case, two hairstylists in Missouri who were infected with Covid-19 treated 140 people over several days. Both the stylists and the clients wore masks. None of the clients contracted the disease.

President Donald Trump says wearing a mask is an expression of opposition to him, but in my experience most of those who wear them are more concerned with reining in the pandemic than they are with the president.

Former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks about reopening the country during a discussion in Yeadon, Pennsylvania, on June 17, 2020. Photo: AFP / Jim Watson

A Fox News poll says even among those who approve of Trump’s job performance, 61% have “a favorable view of mask wearers.” Even Dick Cheney is wearing a mask and touting the hashtag #realmenwearmasks.

That masks are political seems absurd to people elsewhere. As one American expat put it, “In Hong Kong, wearing a mask in a pandemic is as political as using an umbrella in the rain.” Hong Kong, with a population rivaling New York City’s, has had only seven Covid-19 deaths.

Most masks don’t protect the wearer from being infected so much as they stop the wearer from infecting others. That doesn’t mean only those diagnosed with the disease should wear masks. Many don’t know they have the virus; they have no symptoms. But they can give it to others.

This is why mask-less-ness makes the fearful more fearful. Anyone could be carrying it.

The fearless, then, have a choice. They can look down on the stupid sheep who wear masks. They can exercise their rights and defy mask mandates. They’re not likely to get arrested; the worst they’ll face is nasty looks or the occasional lecture from a store clerk.

But if they want to encourage the fearful to venture out, if they want to speed up the economy’s recovery, they might want to consider joining the masked brigade.

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published July 1 by the latter news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.