“Effective immediately, employees and customers can choose whether they would like to wear a mask,” a Southwest Airlines pilot announced jubilantly in the air.
Passengers on the flight from Nashville to Charlotte responded by clapping, cheering and enthusiastically removing their masks, as if after years of solitary confinement the pilot had just opened the cell door. It was a scene repeated across the US as airports, airlines, transit authorities and private rental companies like Uber informed their staff and customers that face coverings were no longer required. One airport even blared the song “We Are The Champions” as unmasked customers milled about, enjoying their “freedom.”
The sudden announcements came in response to Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s ruling that the US government could not require people to wear masks on public transportation. In its 59 pages decisionMizelle, who was appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump, waxed lyrical about the minutiae of dictionary entries from the 1940s. She argued that a law that allowed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, enforcing “sanitation” and “other measures” to “prevent the…spread of communicable diseases,” did not allow the CDC to mandate the wearing of masks on public transportation to limit the spread of COVID-19. 19.
As Judge Mizelle indulged in an exercise of extreme legal pedantry, almost one million people he had already died of COVID alone in the US – playing the violin while Rome burned would have been a more productive hobby.
But Mizelle’s decision is just the latest episode in a series of catastrophic pandemic mistakes by the world’s most powerful country.
Through a combination of ideology, political self-interest, racism, structural inequalities, and next-level idiocy, the US has had one of the worst COVID outcomes in the world. President Trump mocked evidence-based measures to control the pandemic, such as wearing masks, and touted quack advice like using hydroxychloroquine or injecting disinfectant. He publicly contradicted public health experts in his own government, encouraged protests against public health measures by other elected officials, and effectively did nothing to support essential workers on the front lines of the crisis. crisis. After he himself was hospitalized and provided treatment for COVID that was not available to almost everyone else, his advice to his compatriots was not to let COVID “take over.” [their] it lives”.
After President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office, the federal government dramatically improved its communications about the pandemic and public health and pushed through strong economic measures, yet many of the new president’s policies have been blocked by judges. appointed by Republicans.
For example, the CDC’s moratorium on evictions of renters by landlords in areas of the country with high COVID rates was blocked by the US Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents.
The Supreme Court also blocked a rule that required large employers to require workers to get vaccinated or tested weekly and to wear masks at work. The essence of the court’s reasoning in that case, that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could not regulate COVID as a workplace problem because it is also a non-workplace problem, strained judicial credibility. to the extreme.
Another court similarly blocked a vaccination requirement for workers under contract with the federal government. In response to the difficulties it has faced, and the changing mood in the country, the Biden administration increasingly appears to be giving up. The CDC recently revised the way it measures COVID risk, with the effect that areas of the country that were previously risky are now considered non-risky, providing a false sense of security. And Biden’s top medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, has claimed that the US is now “out of the pandemic phase.” Specific measures to protect healthcare workers from COVID have been allowed to lapse. The Biden administration, for example, did not try to replace the test or vaccine mandate with other rules to protect workers from contagion risks on the job.
The administration spent a couple of days dithering before deciding it would appeal Judge Mizelle’s decision, and as of this writing, they have yet to request a stay of the decision to keep masks mandatory while the appeal is pending.
Regardless of any legal decision, the CDC and Biden appear to have prevaricated on whether masks on public transportation were necessary; the CDC’s last mandate renewal was for a period of just two weeks, and when Biden was recently asked if people should still wear masks, he replied that “it was up to them.”
The proposition that, through a combination of vaccines, therapies, accumulated herd immunity, and the dominance of milder Omicron subvariants, the pandemic is no longer a cause for concern in the US is indeed seductive. Although currently available vaccines are no longer great at preventing infection, they are still effective for most people in preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death. Some of the available therapies, especially if given early on, are also quite effective. And the milder variants and our growing immunity, through past infections and vaccinations, clearly provide more protection than we had at the start of the pandemic. However, complacency remains dangerous. And, as has been the theme throughout this global pandemic, the danger is greater for some than for others.
First, not everyone who gets vaccinated will be adequately protected, particularly immunocompromised people, such as some cancer survivors. And in the US, it’s not easy for everyone to get access to therapy if they get a severe case of COVID. Additionally, people of color not only disproportionately use public transportation in the US, but due to long-standing health and economic inequalities and structural racism, they have borne the brunt of the pandemic in The USA.
This phenomenon has been well publicized since the early days of the outbreak in 2020. And instead of acting as a clear call to action, a University of Georgia Athens study suggested that white people in the US who were more aware of these racial disparities were less likely to take COVID safety precautions or support public health measures.
Additionally, low-paid and essential workers, who are least likely to have the option of remote work, often perform the highest-risk jobs, even if their wages do not reflect this.
The problem with viewing COVID public health measures as a matter of personal freedom is that what you do affects those close to you, sometimes fatally; one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s super spreader. And for people who have no choice but to show up to work in person or take public transportation, their health and well-being, and that of those they may care for, should not be sacrificed on the altar of illusory freedom so that others may feel that we are “learning to live with COVID”.
like an oncologist put it: “I can’t imagine hearing that using a simple item on part of my face for a couple [hours] could prevent hospitalization or death of someone [and] then choosing not to.” But, he noted, “a lot of people make that decision when there’s no mandate.” The shocking selfishness and utter lack of empathy that some people have for others with less privilege, and the willingness of politicians to feed off, or at least approve, is shameful. So aside from the screaming and cheering, America has nothing to celebrate with the removal of mask mandates and we are certainly not the champions.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.