What’s Behind a Mask?

Big corporations rushed out like thieves behind a mask to exploit the crisis.

For future historians and artists who’ll chronicle today’s health and economic crisis, one humble item will stand out as the chief cultural emblem of the times: wearing a mask. Or not.

These low-tech, low-cost, high-impact coverings for the nose and mouth are so simple and effective at helping reduce the COVID-19 infection rate that our top political leaders’ failure to produce, distribute and require them en masse when the pandemic first spread ranks somewhere between stupid and criminal. Yet, following the visual example set by doctors, nurses and other health professionals (including morticians!), the people themselves took the lead, rapidly making homemade masks a booming cottage industry and a charitable act. Artists quickly chipped in with creative designs. Impish youngsters put masks on public statues. Cartoonists masked their characters. And, of course, satirists produced photos of President Donald Trump wearing a mask … over his eyes.

Meanwhile, big corporations rushed out like masked thieves and deceivers to exploit the crisis. On the one hand, their lobbyists shoved to the front of the line to grab billions in public relief funds meant for small Main Street businesses. On the other hand, they’ve been churning out touchy-feely PR campaigns portraying Amazon warehouses, Hefty trash bags, McDonald’s fries and Walmart clerks as the epitome of all-in-this-together Americanism. Their not-so-subliminal message in this global pandemic is that what unites us as a people is crass commercialism — so buy something from us!

Then there are the billionaire-funded, right-wing political fronts that are staging a series of small (and small-minded) protests against — wait for it — masks. Yes, to advance their extremist, laissez faire ideology, the Koch brothers’ network and others are actually working to divide Americans during this time of national crisis by demonizing, of all things, mask wearing! They’ve incited a gaggle of latter-day Patrick Henrys to confuse patriotism with nutballism. Thus, masquerading as brave defenders of individual liberty, some have felt free to trample on America’s Common Good. Loudly proclaiming that being asked to make a minor, temporary, life-saving wardrobe adjustment is pure tyranny, they freely breathe their COVID-19 infections into our public air, often while mocking and even assaulting retail employees, bus drivers and others who’re just trying to get everyone to live and let live.

In this strange time, the modest mask has become a complex social symbol of competing acts of generosity, greed and goofiness. The good news is that generosity is prevailing over the other two.

Some people in particular ought to be wearing a mask wherever they go in public — not a protective medical mask but full-facial ski masks, like those favored by bank robbers and muggers.

Take Zach Fuentes, for example, a former deputy chief of staff for the commander in chief himself. He resigned from his White House duties in January, looking to parlay his government experience into some sort of lucrative, entrepreneurial future. Then, the pandemic hit America, and tens of thousands of people began to die. The dual horror of a rampant contagion and Trump’s incompetent government quickly spread the crisis, but Fuentes thought, “Aha, opportunity!”

By April, he was in the federal contracting business, having set up a corporate facade for hustling deals to provide medical supplies to government agencies. Only 11 days after he opened for business in Washington — Bingo! — the lucky greenhorn won a $3 million contract from the Department of Health and Human Services to ship respirator masks to Navajo Nation hospitals in Arizona and New Mexico that were being overrun by hundreds of COVID-19 cases. Fuentes was apparently awarded the contract with little competitive bidding, even though he had no knowledge about medical supplies or experience in federal contracting, and even though his price of $3.24 per mask was triple the pre-pandemic cost of $1 each.

Oh, he also had no masks. No problem there, though, for he had a source: China. An obvious bit of irony there, since Trump is frantically trying to blame China for his own massive screw-ups in handling the pandemic in our country.

Worse for Fuentes, though, the bulk of the Chinese masks he procured for the Navajo hospitals may not provide inadequate protection, may be unsuitable for medical use or were not the type he promised to deliver. So, the Navajo people didn’t get the help they urgently needed; Fuentes and the Chinese supplier each made off with a bundle; and we taxpayers got mugged.

This is what happens when government is turned over to insider profiteers. These bungling bandits should at least have to wear scarlet masks so we can point them out to our children and say, “Don’t let them control your future.”

Jim Hightower