Nicholas Kristof: This is the test of our lifetimes

Refusing to wear a mask is today’s equivalent of drunken driving.

This should be a season of hope: We will shortly be getting a highly effective coronavirus vaccine, and the pandemic should wind down in the coming months.

Yet this is the most wretched holiday season of my life. Consider:

— More Americans have died from COVID-19 in nine months than in combat over four years in World War II. The virus death toll exceeds 292,000, compared with 291,557 American World War II battle deaths.

— We’re sometimes now losing more Americans from the virus in a single day than perished in the Pearl Harbor attacks or 9/11. But contrary to viral memes floating around the internet, the virus is not creating the “deadliest days” in American history: In October 1918, in a much smaller population, more than 6,000 Americans died of the Spanish flu on average each day for the entire month.

— If American states were treated as countries, the places with the highest per capita coronavirus death rates would be: Slovenia, South Dakota, North Dakota, Bulgaria, Iowa, Bosnia, Hungary, Croatia, Illinois, North Macedonia, Rhode Island, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas, San Marino.

A pandemic is a test of a country’s governance, and this is one the United States has failed. Much of that is on President Donald Trump’s colossal failure of leadership, but it also reflects a deeper skepticism about science and a proclivity toward personal irresponsibility — such as refusing to wear masks.

America’s unraveling was captured by the video of a district health board meeting in Idaho a few days ago to discuss a mask mandate. One member, Diana Lachiondo, received an emergency call and frantically interrupted the discussion.

“My 12-year-old son is home by himself right now, and there are protesters banging outside the door,” she said, so distraught that it’s hard to make out her exact words. “I’m going to go home.”

The terrified boy and his 8-year-old brother were home alone (their grandmother had taken the dog on a walk) as armed protesters arrived, screaming, blowing air horns and calling their mom a tyrant — for trying to save people’s lives with face masks.

“I am sad,” Lachiondo wrote later in a Facebook post. “I am tired …. There is an ugliness and cruelty in our national rhetoric that is reaching a fevered pitch here at home, and that should worry us all. And, above all, I am terrified about the virus’s current trajectory.”

She added: “I’m calling on Republican leaders who have politicized public health, who have amplified rhetoric, capitalized on it, tacitly endorsed it while holding hands with the most extreme factions in their party. Take a hard look at what you’ve become. It’s far past time to do better.”

Historically, national crises have always stressed the social fabric. The plague led to attacks on Jews and poor harvests set off witch trials. Today as well, too many politicians and ordinary Americans disdain science or any iota of personal responsibility, polarizing the country and misleading fellow citizens.

“Open America up,” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., tweeted recently. “Masks don’t work,” said Ron Paul, the former Republican presidential candidate. Both these assertions defy science and public health recommendations; they are not just misleading but potentially lethal.

All this may worsen the pandemic.

“I think we’re going to go up for weeks,” warns Dr. Tom Frieden, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cases are cresting in the upper Midwest, but that’s just from massively high rates, and the post-Thanksgiving bump is just beginning to play out.”

Just as the Thanksgiving bump fades, I fear, the Christmas bump will arrive.

It’s not that the coronavirus can’t be controlled: Europe had a terrible autumn wave but reined in the virus — while keeping schools open. Yet the United States as a whole still can’t match Europe in rationally managing the virus. That goes back to weak American governance; if only Trump tackled a real virus as aggressively as he does fake electoral rigging.

“Most European countries are doing their best with government messaging, restrictions on hospitality and indoor house visits, testing, tracing, soft-touch border restrictions and face coverings, whereas the U.S. looks like a free-for-all,” said Devi Sridhar, an American who is a professor of global health at the University of Edinburgh. She noted that European countries have also put in place structures — universal health care, sick pay, free testing — that make it easier to address a crisis like this.

While Republicans have been particularly irresponsible in resisting face masks, it is mostly local Democratic officials who have irresponsibly kept schools closed more than necessary. As I’ve argued since May, that exacerbates inequality and learning gaps — without significantly curbing the virus.

“If the status quo continues, students of color stand to lose 11 to 12 months of learning by the end of the (school) year,” McKinsey & Co. warns in a new report. White students would be set back by less, four to eight months, it says.

The United States is also bungling the economic response. The nonprofit Feeding America warns that the pandemic could cause food insecurity to affect 1 in 4 American children, but Congress has been unable to pass an emergency bill to support those out of work. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin is recklessly trying to disable tools used by the Federal Reserve to address the economic crisis, apparently seeking to inflict more pain on Americans in the Biden administration.

Folks, we should be celebrating now. We have a new Pfizer vaccine that is 95% effective! Just behind it in the approval process is a vaccine from Moderna! By next summer, we should be able to emerge from our caves and hug each other again.

Except that by then hundreds of thousands of us will no longer be around.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that more than 500,000 Americans will have died of the coronavirus by the end of March. It expects that vaccines will have saved 25,000 lives by then — but that broader mask usage in this period could save even more lives, 56,000.

“Vaccines are amazingly promising — much more so than I thought possible,” Frieden told me. “But they won’t be here for a while, so we need to double down on protection protocols.”

Refusing to wear a mask is today’s equivalent of drunken driving. The odds of killing someone are low, but collectively this year the refusal to wear masks will kill far more Americans than driving under the influence.

This is the test of our lifetimes. Let’s stop failing it.

Huge thanks to readers for responding to my annual holiday gift-giving guide with $5.1 million in donations for nonprofits that help African girls go to school, cure blindness from cataracts in Asia and Africa, and help low-income American students complete high school and go on to college. About 1,000 readers have also volunteered for two children’s organizations. Join in at: KristofImpact.org

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

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