Somebody recently posted to my Facebook newsfeed an article featuring comments made by the Governor of North Dakota, a Republican, defending the wearing of masks in public and denouncing those who harass mask wearers. The point of the article was that conflict between those who wear masks and those who don’t reflected a larger and growing culture war caused by the plague and the resulting collapse of the economy—an issue beginning to win more attention, which may be the subject of a column here someday. But I was also struck by a paradox—that opposition to mask wearing seems to be emerging mainly from within the Republican Party, which considers itself conservative. Yet harassment of those who wear masks is as unconservative as one can get, since mask wearers are exhibiting what used to be considered conservatism’s most central principle—prudence in the face of the unknown, especially an unknown and not yet knowable situation created by a possibly premature reopening of the economy.
Yet central to thoughtful and traditional conservative thought is the belief that one should always act with prudence and caution—that one should distrust abstract and untried theories, that one should make decisions based on fact, common sense, the accumulated wisdom of generations and the lessons of history, and that one should always be aware of the possibility that decisions may have unintended consequences that create new problems or that make old problems worse. And herein lies the reason why we could profit from a more conservative approach to the reopening of our economy. We don’t know enough about the future course of the plague. We don’t know if those who’ve had it are immune, or whether they’ll get it again in the future. We don’t know if or when cures or vaccines will be produced. We’re still very much in the dark, and those who are pushing for a rapid reopening of the economy want to take a great, and most unconservative, leap into an unknown fraught with disease and death.
There can be no question but that our economy must be reopened as quickly as possible consistent with the promotion of public health and safety. The economic damage resulting from the social distancing and shelter-in-place policies is real. Bankruptcies and joblessness are skyrocketing to Great Depression-era levels. No country can sustain such conditions indefinitely. The economy should be reopened anywhere and everywhere social distancing and shelter-in-place have achieved their overall goal—to slow the spread of the plague long enough to allow society to develop the public health infrastructure to effectively treat plague victims, to give us enough time to develop the hospitals, equipment, medicines, and personnel to give everyone who contract the plague a fighting chance of recovery. But the economy should not be reopened unless the infrastructure is in place, and even if the economy is reopened, it should be shut down if unforeseeably high spikes in the numbers of infected overwhelm the infrastructure’s capacity to cope with new patients.
Some parts of the country may already have the infrastructure necessary to cope with the plague and its victims; Governor Abbot says, in justifying the reopening of Texas, that our hospital capacity is more than enough to cope with projected cases. Yet across the country 75% of the public, according to some polls, express concern that we’re opening too soon, and public health professionals are warning of new outbreaks for which we may not be ready. They caution against reopening until at least we have a greater testing, tracking, and treating capability.
To test, track, and treat those who’ve been infected with the plague seems to be the key to the success of countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and New Zealand, where deaths have been minimized without damage to their economies. A good conservative approach to dealing with both the medical and economic crises we suffer from is to look at the facts, learn from other countries, and adopt their methods.
And we should do more—we should look to our own past success in developing a crash program for the development of nuclear weapons during World War II projects and develop Manhattan Project-style programs to develop medicines which will not only cure the sick but vaccine the healthy and thereby prevent them from becoming sick. Since the medical crisis caused the economic crisis, the cure for the former offers the best way to end the latter.
In the meantime, we should keep in mind that even in those countries which seem to have their medical crises under control and their economies thriving, masks are always being encouraged and frequently mandated. That seems to be working too. So if one sees someone wearing a mask even where doing so is not required, leave him alone. The mask is not a political statement. It’s not a sign of disapproval of our economic reopening. The mask and those who wear it are reminding us to be cautious in this brave new world, for while economic recovery may be just around the corner, so too could be more death.
Malcolm L. Cross has lived in Stephenville and taught politics and government at Tarleton since 1987. His political and civic activities include service on the Stephenville City Council (2000-2014) and on the Erath County Republican Executive Committee (1990 to the present). He was Mayor Pro Tem of Stephenville from 2008 to 2014. He is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and the Stephenville Rotary Club, and does volunteer work for the Boy Scouts of America. Views expressed in this column are his and do not reflect those of The Flash as a whole.