“Effective immediately, employees and customers may choose whether they’d like to wear a mask,” a Southwest Airlines pilot announced jubilantly, mid-air.
Passengers on the flight from Nashville to Charlotte, in the United States, responded by applauding, cheering, and eagerly removing their masks, as if after years of solitary confinement, the pilot had just opened the cell door. It was a scene replicated across the US as airports, airlines, transit authorities and private hire companies like Uber informed their staff and customers that masking was no longer necessary. One airport even blared the song “We Are the Champions” on repeat as unmasked customers milled around, enjoying their “freedom”.
The sudden announcements came in response to Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s decision that the US government could not require people to mask while on public transportation. In her 59-page decision, Mizelle – who was appointed by former Republican President Donald Trump – waxed lyrical on the minutiae of dictionary entries from the 1940s. She held that a law that enabled the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to enforce “sanitation” and “other measures” in order to “prevent the … spread of communicable diseases”, did not allow the CDC to mandate mask use on public transportation to limit the spread of COVID-19.
While Judge Mizelle was indulging in an exercise of extreme legal pedantry, nearly one million people had already died from COVID in the US alone – fiddling while Rome burned would have been a more productive pastime.
But Mizelle’s decision is just the latest episode in a series of catastrophic pandemic blunders 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 made fun of evidence-based measures to control the pandemic – such as mask-wearing – and touted quack advice like using hydroxychloroquine or injecting disinfectant. He publicly contradicted his own government’s public health experts, encouraged protests against other elected officials’ public health measures, and he did effectively nothing to support essential workers on the front lines of the crisis. After he, himself, was hospitalised and provided a treatment for COVID which was unavailable to nearly everyone else, his advice to his compatriots was to not let COVID “dominate [their] lives”.
After President Joe Biden, a Democrat, took office, the federal government dramatically improved its communications on the pandemic and public health and pushed robust economic measures, however many of the new president’s policies have been stymied by Republican-appointed judges.
For example, the CDC’s moratorium on landlord evictions of tenants in areas of the country with high COVID rates was blocked by the country’s Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices were appointed by Republican presidents.
The Supreme Court also blocked a rule that compelled large employers to require workers to either get vaccinated or test weekly and wear masks at work. The essence of the court’s reasoning in that case – that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) couldn’t regulate COVID as a workplace issue because it’s also a non-workplace issue – strained judicial credibility to the extreme.
Another court similarly blocked a vaccine requirement for workers who contract with the federal government. In response to the difficulties it has faced – and the changing mood in the country – the Biden administration appears, increasingly, to be giving up. The CDC recently overhauled how it measures COVID risk, with the effect that previously risky areas of the country are now deemed not risky, providing a false sense of security. And Biden’s chief medical adviser, Dr Anthony Fauci, has claimed the US is now “out of the pandemic phase”. Specific measures to protect healthcare workers from COVID have been allowed to lapse. Biden’s government, for example, did not try to replace the test-or-vax mandate with other rules to protect workers from the risks of contagion at work.
The administration spent a couple of days dithering before deciding they would appeal Judge Mizelle’s decision, and – at the time of writing – they still have not sought a stay of the decision so that masks could remain mandatory while the appeal is pending.
Regardless of any legal decision, the CDC and Biden have seemed to prevaricate on whether masks on public transport were even necessary; the CDC’s latest renewal of the mandate was for a period of only two weeks, and when Biden was recently asked whether people should still mask he responded it was “up to them”.
The proposition that – through a combination of vaccines, therapeutics, built-up community immunity and the predominance of the milder Omicron subvariants – the pandemic is no longer a cause for concern in the US, is indeed seductive. Although the currently available vaccines are no longer great at preventing infection, they are still effective for most people at preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death. Some of the available therapeutics – especially if administered early on – are also quite effective. And the milder variants and our increasing immunity – through past infections and vaccination – clearly provide more protection than we had at the beginning of the pandemic. However, complacency is still 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, in particular the immunocompromised, such as some cancer survivors. And in the US, it is not easy for everyone to get access to therapeutics if they do get a bad case of COVID. Also, people of colour not only disproportionately use public transportation in the US but – due to longstanding health and economic inequities and structural racism – have borne the disproportionate brunt of the pandemic in the US.
This phenomenon has been well publicised since the earliest days of the outbreak in 2020. And rather than act as a clarion call to action, one 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.
Further, low-paid and essential workers – who are less likely to have the option of remote work – are often performing the highest risk jobs, even if their wages do not reflect this.
The problem with conceiving of COVID public health measures as a matter of personal liberty is that what you do affects the people near you, sometimes lethally; 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 wellbeing – and that of the people for whom they may care – should not be sacrificed on the altar of illusive liberty so that others can feel we are “learning to live with COVID”.
As one oncologist put it: “I can’t imagine hearing that wearing a simple item over part of my face for a couple [hours] could prevent someone’s hospitalisation or death [and] then choosing not to do it.” But, she pointed out, “many people make that choice when there is no mandate”. The stunning 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 countenance – it, is disgraceful. So, whoops and cheers aside, America has nothing to celebrate with the removal of the mask mandates and we certainly are not the champions.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.