Wednesday, April 20, 2022

An Individualistic (and Ridiculous) Ruling on Masks

 When I lived in Austria, my Hausfrau (landlady) would hear stories about America in the news and say, "Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!" (Only in America is this possible!) I remember she once used this expression when telling me that a local Austrian band that was touring the US was stiffed by their American promoter and had no money to come back home.

I could not help but think of this expression when I read yesterday that a federal judge in Florida overturned the CDC’s mask mandate. There are three aspects of this story that make it unbelievable, and culturally significant.

1) The political. What kind of crazy country is this that a 35 year old judge, one appointed by then President Trump after he had lost the election, can declare that the nation's top health officials do not have the authority to require people to wear masks? Judge Mizelle had been rated not qualified (for lack of experience) by the American Bar Association, but she was rapidly confirmed by the Senate along party lines anyway. Our public health measures are decided by her? Republicans and the group that brought the lawsuit (Health Freedom Defense Fund) complain about unelected officials making rules (“Unelected officials cannot do whatever they like to our personal freedoms just because they claim good motives and a desirable goal”), but the judge was also not elected, and was named to the bench in a most unseemly manner, too.

2) Mask science: Opponents of mask mandates often say that wearing a mask should be voluntary. This misunderstands the science of masks, which shows that they primarily work to prevent sick people from spreading the virus, more than protecting the wearer from others who are sick (though it helps in that too). Here is the CDC’s current view:

Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets by the wearer (“source control”), which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others (estimated to account for more than 50% of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions). 

Of course, masks alone are not the perfect protection, but they do work by reducing transmission.

3) Individualism. I have always bristled when Asians comment that Americans are individualistic, because Americans are also joiners and are not selfish, as is often implied. But in this case, I have to agree that it is American individualism that is distorting Americans’ understandings of masks. It has long been noted that the Sony Walkman was developed in Japan so listeners would not disturb others, while Americans bought the Walkman to socially distance (if you walk around with headphones on, no one will disturb you). The judge’s ruling that the Public Health Service Act of 1944 covers only “sanitation” and not “hygienic steps” like masks a) treats masks as an undue burden, and b) seems to prevent any public health measure. She's quoted in the NY Times as ruling:

“If Congress intended this definition, the power bestowed on the C.D.C. would be breathtaking,” she wrote. “And it certainly would not be limited to modest measures of ‘sanitation’ like masks.”

If the government’s broader interpretation of the agency’s powers were accurate, she added, the C.D.C. could require businesses to install air filtration systems, mandate that people take vaccines, or even require “coughing into elbows and daily multivitamins.” 

Of course, health authorities have required vaccines for decades. There is an individualistic, indeed, selfish, streak in her logic that is truly amazing to me.

It is shocking, and very disturbing to me, to see Americans unable to understand that wearing a mask is not primarily to protect yourself, but to protect others. This type of individualism is a dysfunctional, anti-social perspective, that when combined with a lack of scientific understanding of mask use, and a hyperpartisan political environment in which unqualified judges are named and then can make major decisions, bodes ill for the US. Nur in Amerika ist es möglich!

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