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Paul Krugman: Unmasked: When identity politics turns deadly

Refusing to wear a mask is a declaration that you reject civic responsibility.

(Jonah Markowitz | The New York Times) Face masks hang on a doorknob at a home in Valley Stream, N.Y., May 20, 2020. "We’ve made a lot of progress against the pandemic over the past couple of months," writes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. "But the danger is far from over."

Relieving yourself in public is illegal in every state. I assume that few readers are surprised to hear this; I also assume that many readers wonder why I feel the need to bring up this distasteful subject. But bear with me: There’s a moral here, and it’s one that has disturbing implications for our nation’s future.

Although we take these restrictions for granted, they can sometimes be inconvenient, as anyone out and about after having had too many cups of coffee can attest. But the inconvenience is trivial, and the case for such rules is compelling, both in terms of protecting public health and as a way to avoid causing public offense. And as far as I know, there aren’t angry political activists, let alone armed protesters, demanding the right to do their business wherever they want.

Which brings me to my actual subject: face mask requirements in a pandemic.

Wearing a mask in public, like holding it in for a few minutes, is slightly inconvenient, but hardly a major burden. And the case for imposing that mild burden in a pandemic is overwhelming. The coronavirus variants that cause COVID-19 are spread largely by airborne droplets, and wearing masks drastically reduces the variants’ spread.

So not wearing a mask is an act of reckless endangerment, not so much of yourself — although masks appear to provide some protection to the wearer — as of other people. Covering our faces while the pandemic lasts would appear to be simple good citizenship, not to mention an act of basic human decency.

Yet Texas and Mississippi have just ended their statewide mask requirements.

President Joe Biden has criticized these moves, accusing the states’ Republican leaders of “Neanderthal thinking.” But he’s probably being unfair — to the Neanderthals. We don’t know much about our extinct hominid relatives, but we have no reason to believe that their political scene, if they had one, was dominated by the mixture of spite and pettiness that now rules American conservatism.

Let’s start with the objective realities.

We’ve made a lot of progress against the pandemic over the past couple of months. But the danger is far from over. There are still substantially more Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 now than there were, say, last June, when many states were rushing to reopen and Mike Pence, the vice president then, was assuring us that there wouldn’t be a second wave. Roughly 400,000 deaths later, we know how that worked out.

It’s true that there is now a bright light at the end of the tunnel: The development of effective vaccines has been miraculously fast, and the actual pace of vaccinations is rapidly accelerating. But this good news should make us more willing, not less, to endure inconvenience now: At this point we’re talking about only a few more months of vigilance, not a long slog with no end in sight.

And keeping infections down over the next few months will also help rule out a potential public health nightmare in which new, vaccine-resistant variants evolve before we get the existing variants under control.

So, what’s motivating the rush to unmask? It’s not economics. As I said, the costs of mask-wearing are trivial. And basic economics tells us that people should have incentives to take into account costs they impose on others; if potentially exposing those you meet to a deadly disease isn’t an “externality,” I don’t know what is.

Furthermore, a resurgent pandemic would do more to damage growth and job creation, in Texas and elsewhere, than almost anything else I can think of.

Of course, we know what’s actually going on here: politics. Refusing to wear a mask has become a badge of political identity, a barefaced declaration that you reject liberal values like civic responsibility and belief in science. (Those didn’t used to be liberal values, but that’s what they are in America 2021.)

This medical version of identity politics seems to trump everything, up to and including belief in the sacred rights of property owners. When organizers at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference asked attendees to wear masks — not as a matter of policy, but simply to abide by the rules of the hotel hosting the meeting — they were met by boos and cries of “Freedom!” Do people shriek about rights when they see a shop sign declaring, “No shoes, no shirt, no service”?

But arguably we shouldn’t be surprised. These days conservatives don’t seem to care about anything except identity politics, often expressed over the pettiest of issues. Democrats appear to be on the verge of enacting a huge relief bill that embodies many progressive policy priorities. But the Republican response has been remarkably low-energy, and right-wing media are obsessed with the (falsely) alleged plot to make Mr. Potato Head gender-neutral.

Unfortunately, identity politics can do a lot of harm when it gets in the way of dealing with real problems. I don’t know how many people will die unnecessarily because the governor of Texas has decided that ignoring the science and ending the mask requirement is a good way to own the libs. But the number won’t be zero.

Paul Krugman | The New York Times (CREDIT: Fred R. Conrad)

Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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