July 3, 2020
Wearing a mask sucks.
On that I think we can all agree. But we’re still in what is probably the early stages of a global pandemic that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives worldwide, according to NPR—and probably many more unofficially. And scientists still don’t have a treatment regimen—likely a drugcocktail of the type that is used to treat HIV—that reduces the chance of death from COVID-19 to levels similar to that of the annual influenza outbreak. Nor is an effective vaccine expected to see mass distribution until next year at the earliest.
So for now, masks are the best way to protect people from infecting each other while out of their homes. Especially in closed indoor spaces of the type that are now being allowed to open up again. Far too soon in the estimation of most of the world’s virologists and epidemiologists.
Yet all over the country—including Massachusetts—more and more people are taking off masks and other face coverings and trying to resume their normal lives as if nothing had happened.
Which is completely understandable. And completely unfortunate.
Sure, proper surgical masks (not N95 masks that are strictly reserved for medical personnel now) are much more expensive and hard to come by than they were four months ago—thanks to a federal government that has buried its head in the sand and is refusing to provide basic personal protective equipment to citizens and immigrants alike. Just as it is refusing to use its ability to literally print money to pay every unemployed resident a living wage until the coronavirus crisis is really over.
But, making matters worse, the right wing has also turned refusing to wear masks into a badge of honor. Claiming that being “forced” (in some polities where there is a fine that is virtually never levied) to wear them is a sign of “tyranny and oppression” that is somehow the fault of the Democratic Party. Despite the fact that the government is still controlled by the very Republican Trump administration.
And there are people of all political stripes that have consistently refused to wear a mask. Even here in supposedly left-wing Boston, some neighborhoods and near suburbs may have briefly achieved 80 or 90% mask usage in May. But by June, it started getting warmer and states all over the nation—including Massachusetts—started “reopening” businesses. And people took that as an all clear signal that was simply not there outside of bombastic and wildly inaccurate public relations messages coming from President Trump and his high-ranking profoundly unethical toadies like Vice President Pence.
So what to do now?
First, I think it’s important to be sympathetic to people around you who are refusing to wear masks—even if they are threatening the lives of everyone around them as potential spreaders of a still-virulent and extremely dangerous virus. There’s no question that it’s hard to keep masks on in general—especially as it gets hotter outside.
Second, and critically, I think it’s vital to engage everyone in your personal and work networks in conversations about the importance of wearing masks during the pandemic.
I recommend speaking quietly and calmly about the scientific facts of what is known about the coronavirus, how it spreads, and how devastating it can be. Not only to old people and to people with chronic health challenges. But to young seemingly healthy people as well. The big spikes we’re seeing in new infections in sun belt states like Florida, Texas, and California as the reopening efforts gain steam are mainly comprised of people in their 20s and 30s. Who have rushed out to party at bars and clubs. And are spreading the virus very quickly. Threatening to overwhelm already beleaguered regional hospital networks soon after they were starting to free up ICU beds and get back to customary patient loads.
I also think that it’s worth talking to friends, family, and co-workers in a more old-fashioned way. Using the language of civic duty and collective responsibility.
A democracy like the US—severely compromised though it may be—is supposed to exist to provide us all with freedom as individuals. But that is only possible by remembering that individual freedom is sometimes only possible with collective effort. Everyone in the country is on the same team when it comes to fighting medical threats like a pandemic. And we owe it to our teammates to help each other and take care of each other in any way we can at times like this.
According to an early version of a peer-reviewed manuscript accepted for publication in Health Affairs journal this month, “Estimates suggest as many as 230,000–450,000 COVID-19 cases” were “possibly averted” thanks to the mask orders that were enacted in some locales. Imagine how many more cases could have been prevented if we had a national mask order coupled with a general apprehension that sometimes we have to do slightly uncomfortable things we don’t really like to do for the common good. Such as, as nudists have been pointing out for generations, wearing clothes. Particularly something as simple as wearing a mask.
So I don’t care what your politics are, covering your face when outside your home is the easiest way to help protect your fellow Americans and Americans-to-be from the spread of a deadly virus—which is unthinking, and therefore doesn’t care whether it infects people who believe it is dangerous or not.
Mask up, America. And we’ll get through this difficult period without more mass casualties than we’ve already suffered as the COVID-19 global epicenter that should never have been.
I’ve been doing it all along and encouraging my friends, family, and co-workers to join me in protecting each other.
If you all do it too, we’ve got this. And in a year this will all just be a bad memory… that I hope we learn important lessons from. The better to never repeat the mistakes we’ve made as a society this time around.