When I was growing up in the ’70s, a common vision of the dystopian future was a bleak, industrialized landscape where everyone has to wear gas-masks because of pollution. The image goes back further still; speaking on the campaign trail in 1968, RFK warned a classroom of children that unless the US did something, air quality in NYC would be so bad in a decade that people would have to wear masks to breathe.
Now here we are, half a century later, sinking daily further into a dystopia, but one of the emblems of our moment is a lack of masks.
I’m referring to COVID, of course, an infectious disease known to be airborne since January 7, 2020, and to the low number of people who wear masks in public although COVID’s spread can be greatly curtailed by doing so.
This is not an an anti-anti-masker screed. I blame institutions, not individuals, for the behavior of the populace. Despite their at times blustering claims to the contrary, most US Americans are obedient and do what they’re told. Most unquestioningly believe the media which, from conservative to liberal, from Fox to CNN to NPR, is telling them they don’t need masks anymore.
So most people don’t wear them, and two and half years into this pandemic, as we are afflicted with new variants and surges, and as more people die or become disabled — and as other diseases like Monkeypox enter the market — we are exposed, defenses down. This is our maskless dystopia: a nation that has apparently given up on the idea of public health, and is barely even making a pretense about fighting an ongoing pandemic. I find it depressing, to say the least.
I’m aware of various controversies around the death count for COVID in the US and elsewhere. It is indeed difficult to make an exact count because standards and procedures differ from place to place and have done so from time to time. Some people claim the official numbers are too high, and others too low. To be honest, that argument doesn’t interest me. It’s enough for me to know that the total number of excess deaths in the US since the outbreak began is over 1,000,000, which means that something serious is going on. I’m also aware that some would ascribe many of those deaths…