When he become president, Joe Biden should use the national emergency powers to require Americans to wear masks. Given that several scores of millions of Americans, including many Trump supporters and others, would view such a requirement as a serious government overreach, the nation will be best served if the new requirement is accompanied by a major public health educational campaign.
This can be done in three ways. One is to focus on sharing information. My first duty when I joined the Carter White House was to participate in a task force he assigned to compose an informative brochure. The brochure, to be sent to all Americans, was going to inform them about how much oil there was left in the world and how much we were using, hence demonstrating that, unless we used less, there would no barrels left by the year 2000. This information-based campaign, like many others like it, failed to change people’s habits.
One might now be tempted to draw on very compelling data to argue in favor of donning masks. In July, the governor of Kansas issued a statewide mask mandate, but the order had an opt-out provision that counties could exercise. Fifteen counties decided to comply with the mandate, while 90 did not. In the counties that mandated masks, which include the more densely populated urban areas of the state and the majority of the population, the infection rate was half that of the counties without mask mandates.
When Dr. Anthony FauciAnthony FauciBiden reignites debate over travel bans Overnight Health Care — Presented by March of Dimes — Omicron sets off a flurry of responses Newsweek opinion editor: Fauci represents 'extremely arrogant and highly politicized elite' MORE, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, at one point compared wearing masks to a vaccine, I thought that for once he had overstated his case, until I noted that public health authorities ruled that they would accept a vaccine that is 50 percent effective. That is, masks are about as good as a vaccine, plus they are cheap, available now, and will be needed even when we have a vaccine. However, merely sharing such information, social science studies show, will not carry the day.
Another way to proceed is to imitate the way Madison Avenue sells toothpaste, perfumes and other goodies. One can find some celebrities, movie stars, rappers and even some conservative clergy, to wear masks. Organize a competition among fashion designers to find who makes the most attractive masks. Even compose pro-mask jingles and raps. Such a campaign would include information about the health benefits of masks but would be mainly evocative and persuasive rather than mainly cognitive. Gov. Cuomo got some New Yorkers to put together a modest version of such a campaign, called "Mask Up America." It draws on humor.
I suggest that a third kind of campaign is needed, one that would use the tools of Madison Avenue while seeking to accomplish much more, using the drive to persuade Americans to don masks as part of an effort to reestablish trust in science and to hold that some public policies should be outside the realm of politics. There long has been an anti-science streak in American society, reflected in the millions of Americans who are opposed to vaccines. Trump drew on and accentuated that damaging streak. To advance public policies on health, the climate and much else, we need to get more of the public to accept the validity of science. Such a campaign should acknowledge that science is always a work in progress but that at each point it provides us with guidance based on the best knowledge available at that stage. The main focus of the campaign would be on narratives that highlight the ways we got antibiotics, x rays and fertilizers (without which farmers could not feed the world).
This new public health education campaign should not seek to build unity, which is too much to ask from such a drive. Instead, the focus should be on getting Americans to agree that some matters can be agreed upon even if we continue to have deep political differences. We should start by treating masks like stop signs. There are no Democratic or Republican stop signs, and all save lives.
President-elect BidenJoe BidenDearborn office of Rep. Debbie Dingell vandalized Pfizer to apply for COVID-19 booster approval for 16- and 17-year-olds: report Coronavirus variant raises fresh concerns for economy MORE should not wait to gain funds from Congress to initiate such a drive. He can detail officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Public Health Service and the Departments of Education and Homeland Security to lead the campaign. He might be able to draw on some reallocated funds to hire professionals who specialize in conducting such public health education campaigns.
A campaign that stresses that masks are a sign of caring for others and the nation, a sign that you get it and that you realize that though we differ we still ride in the same boat, will do more than save many lives. It will help rebuild the American community.
Amitai Etzioni is a university professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. He just launched a new platform for public discourse, CivilDialogues.org.