Commentary: Want to be helpful? Wear a mask!

To date, COVID-19 has infected at least 2 million Americans and killed more than 115,000, a quarter of all the world’s cases and deaths.

There’s plenty of places to lay blame — a lack of national leadership, inadequate testing, a fragmented response to the virus — that are beyond the control of ordinary citizens. But there is something that all of us can do to help: wear a mask.

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Consider that Hong Kong, a metropolis of 7.5 million people, had recorded only four COVID-19 deaths as of Friday. New York, a city of 8.3 million, has suffered more than 17,000. Taiwan, with a population of 24 million, has reported seven deaths. And neither Hong Kong or Taiwan shut down their economies as much as the U.S.

East Asia has kept COVID-19 in check through abundant testing, social distancing, contact tracing, patient isolation and, importantly, the almost universal wearing of masks.

Researchers have discovered that the spread of coronavirus was significantly lower in regions where 80% or more of the population wore masks. In Hong Kong, 98% reported wearing masks.

Americans aren’t nearly as willing. In an April Gallup poll, only one-third said they “always” wore masks in public, one-third wore them “sometimes,” and one-third said “never.”

Masks prevent healthy people from catching COVID-19 and the sick from transmitting it. They act as a barrier, so when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even talks, fewer coronavirus-carrying droplets escape.

Medical masks are ideal, but researchers say that even cotton masks reduce emitted droplets by as much as 99%.

More than one hundred countries now require masks in public, compared to just 15 U.S. states. Despite the benefits, many Americans still say no.

Part of the problem lies with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Initially, the agency said healthy people didn’t need masks unless caring for someone sick, then changed its guidance after learning asymptomatic patients transmitted COVID-19.

President Donald Trump adds to the confusion by eschewing masks, sending the message that, if it’s OK for him to ignore the CDC, it’s OK for others.

Perhaps, above all, Americans avoid masks because of the country’s tradition of individualism. Here, perhaps more than in other nations, a request from the government to wear masks is sometimes interpreted as an attack on civil liberties and freedom.

With more than 20 states now experiencing an uptick in infections, experts warn that a second wave is coming. There’s little appetite for another lockdown, so it’s crucial we accept personal responsibility for our health — embracing hand washing, social distancing, and face masks.

A new British study released June 10 found that “facemask use by the public could make a major contribution to reducing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Wearing masks can help revive the economy by alleviating fears of consumers hesitant to leave home. It can aid in getting employees to return to work. A Qualtrics survey found that nearly half of all workers said they’d be comfortable going back to the office only if masks were required.

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East Asia is managing COVID-19, in part, through widespread mask usage, which is doable here. A simple, inexpensive piece of cloth could determine whether thousands of additional Americans live or die needlessly.

Mark Dickinson is an international instructor and freelance writer who is currently teaching in north Georgia. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.