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Leonard Pitts: Meanwhile, back at the pandemic

By Leonard Pitts

The death toll now stands at more than 120,000. The United States, with roughly 4% of the world’s population, accounts for about 25% of its COVID-19 deaths.

Those states that reopened despite warnings that doing so would cause a spike in coronavirus cases are now seeing — all together now — a spike in coronavirus cases. And Donald Trump has returned to doing political rallies despite being advised by experts that large crowds are essentially a buffet table for the coronavirus. Granted, based on last week’s rally in Tulsa, large crowds are not a problem for Trump just now.

Oh, and let us not forget Deborah Baber, the “proud Trump Republican” who became a social-media sensation last week in defending what she calls her inalienable right not to wear a mask. Her must-see performance before the Ventura County, California, Board of Supervisors somehow weaved in sadomasochism, terrorism and a rendition of “God Bless America” notable for its evocation of “the mountains, white with foam.”

Baber is just one of many folks who have been filmed behaving badly — the guy who shoved his way into a Walmart is also worth a look — because they believe that in refusing to wear masks, they strike a blow for freedom. Just like John Lewis standing up to state troopers on that bridge in Selma, or that Chinese man standing up to a tank in Tiananmen Square except, you know … stupid. And not really about freedom. Fed up with the unmasked holdouts, the Miami Herald recently ran a tartly worded editorial advising people to “just put on their damn masks.” For the record, a HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in May found that most of us feel the same. Overall, 62% say wearing a face mask is “a matter of public health.” Yet only a bare majority — 51% — of Republicans agree; 42% of them consider masks “a matter of personal choice.”

The World War II generation famously sacrificed for the common good in a time of common threat, going without meat, sugar, gasoline and rubber for four years. Yet some of us are whining because they’re asked to wear masks for a few months. But there’s another difference between this era and that one. Everybody back then knew exactly what they were fighting and why.

By contrast, the fight against the coronavirus is waged in a murk of misinformation and a cloud of confusion. Is it really just the common cold? Do masks work? Did the virus originate in a Chinese lab? Will warm weather kill it? Or hydroxychloroquine? Or Lysol? Is it all Obama’s fault? Is it a hoax designed to make Trump look bad?

Blame the murk in part on a medical community that, early on, failed to speak with one clear and consistent voice, particularly about masks. Blame it on Trump, to whom truth is always an unwelcome stranger. But blame it also on our own susceptibility, on the fact that, these days, every third voter fancies themselves Mulder or Scully, ferreting out the truth “they” don’t want you to know. The right and the left both carry that tendency, but it is far more pronounced on the right, thanks to a 24-hour electronic megaplex of half truths, untruths, and conspiracy theories that normalizes the paranoid and the utterly bizarre.

Meanwhile, back at the pandemic, people are dying. So now would be an excellent time for some of us to yank their heads from their fundaments. Put on the damn mask, indeed. And stand 6 feet apart. And listen to the experts. After all, they don’t know who you voted for. And the virus doesn’t care. 

Readers may contact Pitts at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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