Signs telling people to wear face masks are easily ignored on the streets of British and American cities. At the entrance to a pharmacy on Piccadilly in central London, I asked the guard at the door if he could deny entry to anyone not wearing a face mask. He replied, “What can I do?” Most people entering the pharmacy were wearing masks, but the guard said nothing to those who did not. “There’s no law,” he said. “It’s just a request.”
Similarly, in the U.S., and in most other countries, while people are urged to wear masks, many simply do not believe they are needed. They say they won’t do any good and are just annoyances recommended by governments eager to show their power in the midst of the pandemic. Neither the Americans nor the British are likely to fine people for not wearing face masks, and there’s no way to enforce social distancing, even though signs in shops and sometimes on sidewalks tell people to stand two meters or so apart while waiting to be served.
Disagreements about wearing face masks, however, are not nearly as serious as great debates on shutting down schools as students of all ages resume studies after the holiday break. Administrators in the U.S. and Britain hardly seem to agree on whether to close all schools, or just high schools, or high schools and elementary schools but not kindergartens. The debate heats up everywhere while teachers in some districts protest that they are being exposed to COVID-19 if compelled to go to school to teach rather than give classes remotely.
On the level of higher education, universities vary widely as to whether to offer classes remotely or in person. Quite often students find themselves having to show up for certain classes and courses while taking the rest remotely. Common policies are really not possible to enforce in the U.S. with different states having the freedom to decide what to do within their own borders. President Trump has made matters worse by accusing officials of exaggerating the number of cases of COVID, by playing down the dangers while focusing on ceaseless efforts to undermine and turn around the results of the presidential election before Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
Trump’s response to COVID-19 may be about the most irresponsible of any leader of a major country, considering that the U.S. has the highest number of cases, as well as deaths, of any country. Trump likes to argue that others have many more cases than acknowledged. There is no doubt, however, that leaders of most nations have acted far more decisively and effectively than has Trump in combatting the pandemic.
Questions arise, though about quarantines imposed on people. Britain and the U.S. both talk about the need for self-isolation, a form of quarantine, but don’t really check on people all that much. Britain, for instance, orders people to isolate themselves for at least 10 days when arriving from certain countries. New arrivals from South Korea and Japan are exempt in a tribute to the record of both of them in fighting the disease.
But are some countries, such as South Korea, adopting measures that are really not fair? Some might argue that fines and other penalties are excessive, that South Korea is taking dictatorial measures. The authority of the police to hand out tickets or legal summons to those not wearing face masks may seem excessive. If masks are no guarantee of freedom from the disease, however, they surely cut down the rate of occurrence. Whether they are all that effective or necessary is definitely debatable, but the record shows that it’s probably a good idea to wear them.
The U.S. and Britain deserve credit, however, for having vaccines that should finally defeat the spread of the pandemic. The Pfizer and Astra-Zeneca vaccines are now being administered to millions of Brits, including all first-responders, that is, those who are exposed regularly to COVID while working in hospitals and clinics, and then, in the next level, to those above age 75. The U.S. is following the same pattern with yet another vaccine, from Moderna.
In yet another respect, the steps taken in Britain and the U.S. to contain the pandemic are quite similar. Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are able now to serve food and drink on strictly a take-out basis in both countries. I have seen people lining up, two meters apart, for food at grocery store counters, restaurants, and coffee shops in Washington, New York, and London.
Managers and clerks routinely ask customers to wear face masks while waiting to place orders. If they cannot absolutely enforce face masks as a matter of law, they can embarrass customers by constant requests. As for employees, they have the choice between wearing face masks or losing their jobs.
No doubt South Korea is tougher than either Britain or the U.S. in requiring face masks and making certain that new arrivals are quarantined. If South Korea has a better record in fighting the pandemic than does the U.S. or Britain, the ability to conquer COVID-19 now depends on the speed at which the vaccines are distributed and administered.
The battle to defeat the disease faces its most severe test in all countries this winter as the vaccines come into general use and we learn whether they’re really as effective as we’ve been led to believe.