Last week at the Democratic Party National Convention, Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris lambasted President Trump for mismanaging governmental efforts to combat the spread of Covid-19. They have spoken of the tragic deaths among the population generally and among minorities and people of color in particular as if this were connected with the President’s lack of empathy and alleged racist inclinations.
They have weighed in against him for giving mixed signals and false advice over what individuals and local authorities should do. Trump’s critics among politicians and the media have noted each time when he has appeared in public not wearing a face mask and when allowing his entourage to mix without social distancing.
There is much truth to the identified failings of the Trump Administration to stop the spread of Covid-19. At the same time, however agreeable it may be to Trump’s many detractors foaming at the mouth over this devil incarnate, the fact is that the United States has had no monopoly on stupid and lying leaders trying to tackle Covid-19, including stupid and lying leaders in super-sophisticated Europe and not only in slovenly Latin American states or what is now seen to be Third World USA.
As I have mentioned repeatedly in my commentary on Covid-19, the United States would have to witness 270,000 deaths from the pandemic to reach the level of mortality per population that we have experienced in Belgium. To be sure, the missing 100,000 coffins in the US may yet be filled if the country continues its blundering, although the likelihood of the U.S. following the Russian example and starting early vaccination before completion of Phase III tests remains high under this impetuous President who is desperate to win the election on November 4 and would use the vaccination program to show his boldness, contrasted to the wimp whom the Democrats have nominated.
And now I turn to the point made in the title to this article: the role of face masks in containing the pandemic from the beginning in March to today.
As we all know, in many countries there was active debate on the merits of face masks from the very moment that the pandemic took hold in March. Scientists were brought before microphones to declare that the masks had no value. Instead all countries were induced to put in place full lockdown, though the collateral damage to the economy in each country was unparalleled since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Painful, but good for public health we were told.
Here in Belgium the debate over face masks had a special political dimension: under the leadership of the current Minister of Health, the Flemish politician and medical doctor Maggie De Block, a couple of years ago the government destroyed its stock of several million face masks purchased in the last virus epidemic scare nearly a decade ago. Presumably this act of destruction was part of the overall cutbacks in the medical establishment going on in Belgium to save money in times of austerity and most evident to the public in the shutdown of hospitals in the communities and concentration of medical services in mega-hospitals at the city’s periphery. Whatever the thinking behind the destruction of the masks, the country was left without this key Personal Protective Equipment when it needed it most, and replacement in short order was virtually impossible because the whole world was scrambling to purchase these items and the only source of product in requisite quantities was the People’s Republic of China, which was itself still reeling from the pandemic.
Instead of trusting the public with the truth, that masks were simply unavailable and that we should make our own at home, our national leaders chose to mislead the public about their value. Was this any different from the smoke and mirrors performance coming out of the White House? Not a jot.
With time, the world demand for face masks and other PPE has been substantially met. Even here in Belgium we learn that local manufacture of face masks was begun from scratch and is proceeding well. The headline across the front page of the weekend issue of Le Soir informs us that “Belgian Industry Will Produce 600 Million Face Masks this year.” In the meantime, the message coming from the government has shifted 180 degrees. We are told that face masks are indeed very useful in preventing the spread of virus by retaining most of the small liquid particles of those who are infected. For that very reason, cities like Brussels and Antwerp, which have seen spikes in infection after the “deconfinement” was phased in, now make it mandatory to wear face masks EVERYWHERE in public space, whether on the streets or in buildings open to the public.
And do the masks work? Indeed, if you follow the trend of the infection rate here in Belgium, imposition of mandatory wearing of masks has been accompanied by steady reduction in the infection rate, in the hospitalization rate, in the mortality rate these past few weeks. Similar regulations have been introduced across France in ‘red zone’ regions.
If it is true that democracy functions when there is an informed public, then the only conclusion we can reach, is that we do not have a functioning democracy.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020
[If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]