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Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect a Governor to become a reliable source of memes on social media, but Andrew Cuomo is doing things differently. The Democratic Governor of New York has harnessed his social media following to spread the COVID-19 mitigation message to New Yorkers, (primarily) young and (occasionally tech-savvy) old. There aren’t many politicians who become memes for a good reason. With respect, Cuomo has hardly broken the internet in a manner that threatens the dominance of Dwayne Johnson or Kylie Jenner on Instagram. But he has harnessed the platform to communicate a clear message to his 987,000 followers.

Shareable content is even more powerful at a time when politicians are – with one notable exception – campaigning remotely online. Whilst becoming the source of a meme and the butt of all jokes online had once been the bête noire of the political class, Cuomo is getting good at it.

But the focus here is not so much on digital campaigning, as much as the topic is worthy of words on this site. Instead, it shows how something as simple as wearing a mask during a global pandemic has been politicised in the United States.

Wearing a mask ought not to be controversial, especially when the guidance is now unequivocal. The World Health Organisation acknowledges that ‘Non-medical, fabric masks are being used by many people in public areas, but there has been limited evidence on their effectiveness and WHO does not recommend their widespread use among the public for control of COVID-19.’ However, in instances where social distancing is not possible, ‘WHO advises governments to encourage the general public to use non-medical fabric masks.’

In the United States, the advice from government has changed over time, which has created room for confusion. The anti-maskers are well aware of this. The government’s leading infectious disease authority, Dr Anthony Fauci, initially opposed mask-wearing by the American public for fear of draining supplies needed for health care workers, but later reversed course. Since then, he has criticised those reluctant to wear a mask and urged them to “get past” political objections. Research has since squashed any further wiggle room for doubt. A University of Washington health institute study suggests that if 95 per cent of Americans wore masks now, 33,0000 fewer people would die by October 1.

This ought not to have prompted political debate

The mask has become a symbol of political attitudes to the binary ‘health vs recovery’ debate that now looms large over the United States. The president has gone to great lengths to avoid being seen wearing a mask in public, famously refusing to do so when touring a Ford plant in Michigan – despite official state and local requirements to do so. Surrounded by executives wearing masks, President Trump told reporters: “I had one on before. I wore one in the back area. I didn’t want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.” It is unclear why being seen in a mask by the press would represent a form of defeat for the president, short of an infringement on his civil liberties. Some GOP governors are following the president’s lead. Of 20 states that have implemented broad mask-wearing requirements, just four have Republican governors.

The response to the pandemic has descended into political point-scoring – not a shocking statement to make in an election year after all. In refusing to wear a mask, the president wants to become the physical embodiment of the national recovery he hopes will return him to office for four more years. It has become abundantly clear that, even in the simplest form of responding to COVID-19 like wearing a mask, there would be no unity forged between Democrats and Republicans.

The president could be convinced that there is still time to lead

The Republican leadership and membership appear to be bending on the question of masks. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says there should be no stigma associated with covering one’s face and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy says doing so is essential to fully reopening the economy. Even Fox News host Sean Hannity, one of the president’s most vocal and influential supporters, has said he will wear one. Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy, another media friend of the president, went a step further and said:

“I think that if the president wore one [a mask], it would just set a good example. He’d be a good role model. I don’t see any downside to the president wearing a mask in public.”

There is no sign that a change in course from the president would be frowned upon by voters. A new Fox News poll showed 68 per cent of Republicans have a favourable view of mask-wearers, and 61 per cent of those who strongly approve of President Trump’s job performance. Incidentally, perhaps more alarmingly, by a 36-point margin, voters say presidential candidates holding large political events and rallies is a bad idea.

The evidence therefore suggests that there is still time for the president to show leadership on this issue, but the window of opportunity is narrowing. What is more, a volte-face would be jumped on by the president’s opponents as the sign of a spectacular U-turn. What is, in fact, a victory for common sense would be seized upon by the Biden campaign and the likes of Governor Cuomo as a great victory for the Democrats looking ahead to the November election. Policy changes are so often sensationalised as admissions of defeat, whereas often it is simply a victory for common sense – see Downing Street’s concession on the Marcus Rashford campaign for free school meals, for example.

Those hoping for a change of tack from the president are likely to be disappointed. To wear a mask would be to admit that the United States is still in the eye of the COVID-19 storm, enduring the first wave before worrying about the second, at a time when the president wants to focus on the economic rebound. States that previously opened up to a flood of economic activity at bars, restaurants and salons are now facing a tsunami of new cases. For as long as daily cases rise – and Dr Fauci warned yesterday they could creep up to 100,000 per day in short order – the president will look disjointed and out of touch in focussing on the economic recovery. Can a nation’s economy begin to heal while its citizens are still dying?

Covering one’s face should be a simple way of limiting the spread of the disease, above political debate, discourse, or disagreement. The fact that something as obvious as wearing a mask has become a symbol of the political divide that now surrounds COVID-19 embodies the hyper-partisan climate that continues to threaten America’s chances of getting on top of COVID-19. The crossover of politics into pop culture, coupled with the fact that the president appears to consider wearing a mask the antithesis to the economic recovery, makes it hard to foresee a change in approach. That is going to make it harder, not easier, for the United States to get on top of a health pandemic that once again is spiralling out of control.

47 comments for: Ben Roback: When masks become memes: The partisan political climate has hurt America’s fight against coronavirus

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