Masks are the new condoms, and the majority of Americans are on board

Masks are the new condoms.

In the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when so little was known about this deadly, incurable, highly transmissible disease, none other than a young Dr. Anthony Fauci was at the forefront of research and public education.

Today, he advocates masks. Then, he advocated condoms.

His goal was to calm a panicked nation and to convince deniers — those who believed condoms were an infringement on personal freedoms — that he was working in the interest of public health. He always cited the science — not his beliefs, just the facts.

In a 1993 column called “No Thrill is Worth the Odds,” nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers answered a female letter writer who was convinced that condoms were not adequate prevention against HIV infection.

Landers called Dr. Fauci and printed his reply.

“Latex condoms,” he said in part, “provide an excellent barrier against fluid and are effective against HIV passage in the laboratory.”

If there’s one thing Fauci and the National Institutes of Health have made clear over these past few months, it’s that masks provide an excellent barrier — the best weapon we have, really — against COVID-19. A video posted by the NIH in April, showing a mask-wearing speaker emitting a drastic decrease in airborne droplets, makes the case for masks undeniable.

How is wearing a mask still politicized?

On July 14, the CDC officially advised all Americans to wear masks in public. They cited a recent study of two hairstylists in Missouri, both of whom were infected with COVID-19, both of whom unknowingly worked for days in their salon — where masks were required for employees and patrons.

Contact tracing found that none of their combined 139 clients was infected, nor were those clients’ family members.

“We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said. “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this under control.”

President Trump is cratering in the polls on two issues: his handling of the virus and the nation’s subsequent economic collapse. If all it takes to turn this around is federally mandating masks, why not do it?

One thing that we’re missing in the COVID era compared with the AIDS era is the use of popular culture, Hollywood and public figures to change attitudes.

In 1994, the federal government, slow to respond to the then-decade-long AIDS crisis, hired Ogilvy & Mather to create an ad. Ian Latham, then the company’s executive creative director and senior vice president, pitched his concept to The New York Times.

“This little guy,” he said, meaning the condom, “is the hero.”

Why doesn’t the Trump campaign sell MAGA masks? American-flag masks?

A younger Dr. Anthony Fauci in 1996.
A younger Dr. Anthony Fauci in 1996.AP
What if Kylie made a lip kit mask, or Kim wore Skims or Gucci? Think of how quickly Kim Kardashian, criminal-justice warrior, could build on her cultural credibility by championing face masks the way global celebrities like Madonna and Princess Di advocated for AIDS patients and worldwide research before it was the expected thing to do.

Condom usage rose, infection rates fell and eventually, medicines caught up — not a cure, but at least a treatment for HIV/AIDS, no longer a death sentence.

Consider that Dr. Fauci said just last week that, much like HIV, we will never eradicate COVID-19. So until we have some form of herd immunity, coupled with a vaccine, the onus is on all of us to adopt the best public-health measures, which include a very cheap, very accessible physical barrier: the face mask.

It’s quaint, decades on, to recall how controversial condoms were — that there was ever debate about making them readily available, about changes in sex ed and in a necessary and explicit public discourse. In the 1980s, we had a president who refused to even say the word “AIDS” for years, and it cost untold lives. What would happen now if our president refused to go outside without a mask?