When the first SARS and H1N1 viruses broke out in Asia some years ago, we all saw television images of people in the streets of Hong Kong and Singapore wearing masks as part of their effort to suppress the illness’s spread. Here in the U.S., we were fortunate those outbreaks never developed into much of a threat.
But when the novel coronavirus explosion struck in Washington and New York, we witnessed massed numbers of Americans wearing masks for the first time. For some of us, nothing could have made the potential danger more real than those first images.
But we also noticed a conspicuous absence of masks among some in the crowd. In the early stages of the pandemic among Americans, there seemed to be a correlation between who we voted for and who wore a mask despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other agencies responsible for the health and well-being of all our citizens.
My wife drove by one of the local Walmarts for the first time in weeks a few days ago. She was astonished first by the size and density of the crowd at the entrance, and then by the small percentage of masked individuals among them — perhaps 10 to 15 percent.
Since then, I’ve read stories in news media that describe a nearly nationwide rebellion against the donning of face masks that reminded me of the reaction of some smokers when cigarettes were first banned in public places because secondary smoke had proved to be carcinogenic to non-smokers.
“People naturally rebel when they’re told what to do, even if the measures are protective,” said Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Psychology of Pandemics.” “People value their freedoms,” he said. “They may become distressed or indignant or morally outraged when people are trying to encroach on their freedoms.”
The ban on smoking and the mask requirement have a fundamental difference, though. The ban on smoking is permanent, while face masks will be a factor only as long as COVID-19 is a mass threat.
Still, for some of our fellow citizens, it seems the wearing of a mask is tantamount to an admission of fear with which they may not yet have come to grips. I’m guessing they see their rejection of masks as a show of strength.
Further, some folks are transgressing under the mistaken belief that a statewide requirement to wear masks in stores and public buildings is a violation of the U.S. Constitution; therefore, they cannot be compelled to comply. I can find no law or court that supports that view. As of this writing, most state governments have made masks mandatory for some people — mainly customers and/or employees of essential businesses. At the same time, all states stipulate that masks are no substitute for social distancing, as per CDC guidelines.
Historically, the greatest insult to freedom is slavery; and to my mind, nothing better justifies a rebellion. Democracy flourishes in unison with the rule of law and respect for individual rights. Yet education is compulsory in our society. Why? Because it’s clear that educated individuals contribute positively to the common good. Wearing a mask during a time of respiratory pandemic would seem to fall within similar parameters.
Admittedly, the guidance on this matter has been confusing. In the span of a couple of months, wearing a mask has traveled from being unnecessary for healthy people to recommended for anyone who ventures out in public. The change happened when it became clear that even asymptomatic carriers can transmit the virus with every exhalation, or every spoken word. The ambivalence of mixed messages makes it far easier for some people to justify doing whatever they want regardless of social pressure.
I suppose that, for some of us, wearing the mask is an admission that the old way of life is gone, and a new normal has been imposed. It’s a bridge too far.
For those of us who are over 60 years of age, and/or have co-morbidities that make COVID-19 a mortal threat, we can only hope that our unmasked friends will have a change in mind and heart. I know this much for certain: Some of the young people I encounter who are amenable to sporting a face mask do so precisely because they want to help protect their grandparents from a horrible illness. It’s all the motivation they need; a matter of empathy and simple kindness.
Every piece I write is an effort to open the door of indifference that obscures each of us from some other of us, to illuminate the darkness of misunderstanding. That’s my goal.
I wear a mask even though I find it uncomfortable, and I want to tell you why. It’s to help protect myself and everyone I know and love, plus every stranger I encounter. If that’s a new normal, if that opens the door to who I am, if it moves the stone up the hill just a little, then I’m content.