How many people died because Trump mocked mask-wearing? We'll never know

With another COVID surge upon us, many Americans seem done with masks — and Trump's body count keeps growing

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published June 8, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump removes his mask upon return to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on October 05, 2020 in Washington, DC. Trump spent three days hospitalized for coronavirus. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In Edgar Allan Poe's short story "The Masque of the Red Death," attendees of a festive ball held during a mysterious pestilence meet their doom.

If one were "reporting" it today (say, for McSweeney's), the lede might be something like: "Prince Prospero's recent masked ball, hosted in his locked-down palace during these ongoing Plague-times, reportedly has led to the hideous, writhing deaths of all in attendance."

Modern-day versions of Poe's story (first published in Graham's Magazine in 1842, as "The Mask of the Red Death: A Fantasy") could be any of the multitude of political super-spreader events we've seen in the past couple years, from Donald Trump's Rose Garden celebration of Amy Coney Barrett's Supreme Court nomination to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's infamous parties during COVID lockdowns (for which he just survived a no-confidence vote by his own party) to the White House Correspondents Dinner in April, where attendees showed proof of vaccination and were tested but did not wear masks.

Masks work, and as we learned as ever more infectious variants emerged, they work particularly well when they are made of the right material and are worn properly. No one of any political stripe ever wanted to wear a mask, contrary to what the conspiracy theorists may tell you, but civic-minded people donned them when venturing out into public spaces.

RELATED: I can't forget — but I can't remember what: Trump, the pandemic and memory

COVID infections are on the rise again in most U.S. states, and the coming fall and winter are likely to be bad all over again. But Americans, almost to a person, seem done with masks.

For political purposes, Republicans were taught early and often by Trump and their other leaders to consider any pandemic mitigation measures — social distancing, masks, vaccines — as a sign of weakness. So it was no surprise to learn that people in so-called red counties around the country died at higher rates. 

As reported by the Pew Research Center, the U.S. death rate in the first wave of the pandemic was much higher in urban areas, but with each subsequent wave the death rate began to grow in less populous regions. After vaccines became widely available, rural areas started to see death rates four times higher than urban areas. Counties where only 40% of residents were vaccinated had death rates six times higher than counties where at least 70% were vaccinated. In political terms, Trump voters have died at much higher rates than Biden voters. This is also true by the measure of total deaths, even though more than 80% of the U.S. population now lives in urban areas. (You can see how your own county has done in this New York Times map.)

Nearly all the higher death rates result from people who choose not to be vaccinated, but much of the viral spread that led to those deaths can be ascribed to the pushback about wearing masks. As a tribal act of resistance against imagined tyranny, people refused to mask up or would defiantly "mask down" with, say, their nose exposed. Or they would completely go toddler and have a massive public meltdown.

Officially, 6 million people have died worldwide as a result of the pandemic. But the World Health Organization recently announced that due to the under-reporting of excess deaths by countries since the start of the pandemic, the actual number is conceivably more like 15 million. During the pandemic, many people avoided seeking needed medical help for any number of other issues.

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Given that much of the population around the world remains unvaccinated, new variants will undoubtedly continue to emerge. Two omicron subvariants, BA.4 and BA.5, are more transmissible and are ready to spoil any and all festive occasions we might be planning this summer.

Public health experts in the U.S. have said that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved if that person we've been not-quite talking about, our former president, had not politicized efforts at mitigation. Dr. Deborah Birx, who as coordinator of the White House coronavirus task force tried her best to get real information to the public during all of those surreal, circus-like Trump press briefings on the pandemic, says that more than a third of U.S. deaths could have been avoided if that administration had actively encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The malignant political machinations of Donald Trump around nearly every aspect of public health and valid information during the early part of the pandemic continue to metastasize to this day. How could we even begin to estimate how many lives might have been saved by a more active, more positive response?

One approach is to look at what happened in other countries where leaders did not turn the pandemic into political gain.

Trump largely ignored "Stop the Spread," which was the slogan devised by the task force, but refashioned it as his self-serving Big Lie: "Stop the Steal." (Poe would have appreciated that hideous plot twist.)

Bill Maher has said on multiple occasions that when he sees someone wearing a mask outside, he wants to punch them. 

Meanwhile we are still fighting about the overall efficacy of wearing masks and mask mandates. Bill Maher has weighed in any number of times on his HBO program, pointing out how inconsistent people can be, how the rules around wearing masks always seem to change, and effectively saying, well, fuck it. In an April show, he even said that when he sees someone wearing a mask outdoors, he wants to punch them. He repeated that in a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast, which one opinion writer rightly termed "Maher's cacophony of misinformation."

People deny the science because they either don't comprehend or purposely choose to misrepresent the nature of scientific inquiry, which is both time-consuming and self-correcting. Scientists postulate, hypothesize and then experiment to see what happens. They laboriously write up their findings, and peer reviewers examine their data and methods. If they are lucky enough to get their work published in a respected journal, other scientists then try to replicate their findings.

No health expert ever claimed that the vaccines would definitely keep you from getting COVID. They did tell you vaccines would likely prevent you from getting so sick that you'd wind up in the hospital and that you'd be less contagious if you did get infected. No one ever told you that you couldn't get the virus more than once. More recently, you've probably heard experts tell you that it would be wise to avoid the virus entirely because long-term effects are possible (even after a seemingly mild case) and might not be treatable.

But, hey, maybe Joe Rogan told you otherwise.

People simply don't get how science works and don't understand what the word mitigate means. Are we simply too dumb to grow up into a big-boy and big-girl country?

Journalism, in less rigorous fashion, follows something closely akin to the scientific method. Journalists (real ones) look for the best facts on the ground, editors review the work and its factual claims, and the "findings" are always subject to revision, given new facts. Like science, good journalism is self-correcting.

That's one reason why an insecure know-nothing like Trump attacks both scientists and journalists. As a lifelong con man, he naturally resents expertise of any kind. And with his penchant for authoritarianism, he follows its playbook, seeking to subvert facts and knowledge and to indoctrinate his followers with his own self-serving version of reality.

That irony is lost on Trump's followers, who cry about the various supposed tyrannies being retailed by the likes of Tucker Carlson: Trump's subversion of reality, his demand for loyalty over reason, is the deepest expression of tyranny. As Timothy Snyder writes in his book "On Tyranny":

You submit to tyranny when you renounce the difference between what you want to hear and what is actually the case. This renunciation of reality can feel natural and pleasant, but the result is your demise as an individual.

When it comes to refusing to be vaccinated and not wearing a mask in public during a pandemic, that demise is often horribly literal. How many times did health care workers hear dying patients beg for the vaccine too late or repent of their opposition to masks and vaccines?  

Those deathbed pleas and confessions were as macabre as anything found in Poe. But these tragic deaths, of beloved family members, were not fictional, and many or most should not have happened.

In April, a federal district judge in Florida, Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, a Federalist Society member and a Trump appointee, ruled against the CDC's mask mandate on airplanes and other modes of transportation. The Justice Department is now appealing that decision. Polls show that a majority of Americans — and about 80% of Democrats — think masks should continue to be worn on buses, trains and planes. Judge Mizelle took a "textualist" approach, focusing her attention on dictionary definitions of the word "sanitation" and finding, somehow or other, that it did not apply to the wearing of masks in a pandemic.

Like Poe's Prince Prospero, Trump protected himself first and locked himself up with his courtiers — while jabbering at his followers to inject bleach and take snake-oil remedies to own the libs.

Donald J. Trump could never be described as a Prince Prospero, the character in Poe's story described as "happy, dauntless and sagacious," but we can instantly see parallels. Trump protected himself first (he got vaccinated and boosted as soon as possible, as did his family), just as Poe's prince locked himself and his elite followers away from the pestilence, his courtiers welding shut the iron gate with "furnaces and massy hammers." Trump's jabbering at his daily press conferences about masks signaling weakness and bleach injections and hydroxychloroquine and whatever else left his followers psychologically and politically locked out to fend for themselves, if only to own the libs. Like Prince Prospero's guests ("a thousand hale and light-hearted friends from among the knights and dames of his court"), the Republican elite — including every significant Fox News personality — protected themselves while badmouthing the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci and other health care professionals. 

Of Prospero's view on the health crisis, Poe wrote: "The external world could take care of itself." Trump's attitude toward the pandemic was much the same.

In April, at the White House Correspondents Dinner (which host Trevor Noah called "the most distinguished super-spreader event"), President Biden said: "Everyone had to prove they were fully vaccinated and boosted. So if you're at home watching this and you're wondering how to do that, just contact your favorite Fox News reporter. They're all here, vaccinated and boosted. All of them."

Yet given the number of reported infections after that event — and how those would be used by the right to further undermine mitigation measures and medical experts — it might have been better as a masked ball.

There's no doubt that the disinformation campaign against masks will continue. Even so-called liberals like Maher, will, for whatever reason, continue to erode the public's trust in mitigation efforts. It also appears that mask mandates may have questionable efficacy, largely because people don't have the right kinds of masks or don't wear them properly. Meanwhile, Fauci and his family still deal with death threats on a daily basis.

As Biden said at the correspondents' dinner, we live in times "where the truth is buried by lies, and the lies live on as truth."

The New York Times devoted a full episode of its "Daily" podcast to people who lost loved ones during the pandemic. If you take half an hour to listen to it, you will hear people anguished that they are forever bereft, that they couldn't properly say goodbye, and that they now must hear others mocking vaccines and masks and denying the seriousness of the pandemic. No attempt to rewrite the history of the last two years can address that grief.

Read more from Salon on COVID and public health:

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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