Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates on Tuesday said the COVID-19 response in the U.S. faces “worse” anti-mask sentiment than in other countries, which may owe in part to the nation’s “current leadership.”
“Mask-wearing skepticism — or the view that that’s a political act — [in] the U.S. is worse than other countries,” Gates, the former Microsoft (MSFT) CEO and a leading backer of global public health initiatives, told New York Times reporter Andrew Ross Sorkin at the media organization’s DealBook Online Summit.
“Is that because of our current leadership [or] our individualistic view of things? I think that’s hard to attribute,” he adds. “I wouldn’t have expected mask wearing to become controversial.”
Public health experts and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) widely agree that mask wearing reduces the spread of COVID-19. The CDC recently updated its guidance to specify that masks protect the wearer in addition to those around them. As cases spike in the U.S., many states have imposed mask mandates.
But President Donald Trump, as well as other conservative politicians and media figures, have voiced skepticism about the precautionary measure. On Tuesday, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) criticized Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) for asking lawmakers to wear masks while in the chamber. Similarly, House Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) tweeted last Friday that “masks are oppressive.”
Democratic President-elect Joe Biden has repeatedly called on Americans to wear masks. “There’s nothing macho about not wearing a mask,” he said on Monday. “It’s cost people’s lives.”
‘This thing is full of surprises’
Gates said he expects a low level of anti-mask sentiment, but expressed astonishment at how widely the view has been adopted. “The idea that there are some people who think anything, it’s OK, there’s going to be fringe groups,” he says.
Last month, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, Gates sharply criticized the Trump administration for muzzling experts at the CDC while instead listening to White House COVID-19 adviser Dr. Scott Atlas, whom Gates calls a “pseudo-expert” who’s “off-the-rails.”
Atlas, a member of the administration’s coronavirus task force who formerly appeared as a commentator for Fox News, reportedly opposes an expansion of COVID testing and last month posted a tweet falsely downplaying the effectiveness of masks.
On Tuesday, Gates repeated his criticism of unfounded views aired by leaders at the White House coronavirus task force.
“I wouldn’t have expected the administration to find the wildest fringe opinion possible and put that opinion as the leader of the coronavirus task force,” Gates says. “This thing is full of surprises.”
Max Zahn is a reporter for Yahoo Finance. Find him on twitter @MaxZahn_.