COVID-19: Masks or no masks?

The United States now has the highest number of COVID-19 cases among all the countries in the world. If the state response to the pandemic in the richest country in the world remains much the same, inadequate and ineffective, millions of people in the U.S. are projected to become infected with the novel coronavirus in the coming weeks to months. 

Science Magazine recently interviewed George Gao, the director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who played a central role in the isolation and sequencing of the 2019 coronavirus in China. Gao and other Chinese experts say that the big mistake that the U.S. and European countries are making is not wearing masks.

In many countries around the world, governments have encouraged the widespread use of facemasks for the population when in public spaces to curb the transmission of the virus. In contrast, since the first case of the coronavirus infection appeared in the U.S., both the Center for Disease Control and the Surgeon General discouraged people in the U.S. from acquiring and using masks, unless they were symptomatic.

Now months later, the CDC’s disinformation is coming undone as it considers having the public wear non-medical masks, including do-it-yourself masks, to lower the rate of transmission.

The fact is that a very small percentage of the population in the U.S. has been tested for COVID-19, while the majority have no access to testing. This means that many people are already infected, or are carriers, unknown to them. Epidemiologists say people can have asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic infections that can still spread. COVID-19 spreads via droplets and contact, and droplets come out of people’s mouths every time they speak. While the six-foot physical distancing rule does help reduce transmission, a combination of protective measures, including wearing masks, is more effective.

One would hope that U.S. health officials base their recommendations to the public in the midst of a pandemic on the basis of scientific findings quantifying the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the use of masks. Outrageously however,  what these U.S. officials have based their public health advice on is the fear of creating a severe shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment supplies for healthcare workers — an artificial shortage that is in reality a direct result of the U.S. government’s trade policy and aggression towards China that restricts Chinese imports using tariffs. Frontline healthcare workers in the U.S. are already reusing contaminated masks, wearing makeshift bandanas and scarves, and trash bags for gowns, and are themselves getting infected due to the shortages.

Before the pandemic, China was already producing half of the world’s supply of masks. In helping lead the fight against COVID-19 internationally, China has been producing more than 110 million masks, medical and non-medical, per day to meet global demand. There is no shortage of masks, the masks are in China, and the U.S. government is choosing to not lift tariffs on Chinese goods, which would allow critical medical supplies and other necessary goods to freely enter the U.S. These tariffs also increase the price of Chinese imports by 25 percent, making essential goods less accessible to the people living in the United States.

Tens of millions of lives in the U.S. are criminally being put at risk because of the bipartisan Cold War-style attitude and hostility of U.S. politicians towards China, when what is needed is cooperation and collaboration with China to defeat the virus.

By taking extraordinary and unprecedented measures, China has flattened the curve; on March 18, in a country of 1.4 billion people, zero new cases of COVID-19 were reported. The United States should be willing to share information and learn from China’s experience and expertise in battling the virus, rather than spending its energy on propagating a racist misinformation campaign against China as it is continuing to do.

In the absence of a nationally coordinated emergency public health response to the pandemic, along with criminally inadequate testing due to the for-profit healthcare industry, massive shortage of medical supplies as a result of trade tariffs on China and the unwillingness of the two-party political establishment in the country to mandate that private corporations reorganize their production and distribution capabilities to produce critical goods in a period of crisis, we must hold the U.S. government accountable for the unnecessary suffering being inflicted on tens of millions of working-class people.

A few U.S. government officials and private individuals are building public-private partnerships with producers and distributors in other countries to bring medical supplies and protective gear into the U.S. using commercial aircraft. But this type of decentralized response is completely inadequate given the scale of the need. The Department of Health estimates that the U.S. would need over 3.5 billion masks, if the pandemic lasts a year. 

The people need full access to medical supplies and healthcare, free of cost! Demand that the U.S. government lift the criminal tariffs on Chinese goods and end the trade war with China! 

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