As the Covid-19 pandemic has progressed, our understanding of how to stay safe has evolved as well. When it began, many of us ventured into public wearing surgical gloves along with our masks, for example, a practice we’ve learned can be counterproductive for the average person. We used to disinfect our groceries. We know now that the most effective thing (and the very least) we can do is wear a piece of cloth over our faces in public.
Unless you live with salamanders under a rock by the river, you know by now that the mask doesn’t so much protect the one wearing it as it protects others. We don’t wear the mask for ourselves–we do it for our community. If we all do it, it works. And it works best if everyone does it.
This is not difficult. Yet some people are making the conscious decision not to get with the program.
When I run outdoors, I pass others on the sidewalk. It’s usually early morning, so I encounter maybe one or two people per mile, most of them runners like me. When runners approach one another, the etiquette that has developed on its own is a sort of polite slalom as we pass, keeping about 15 feet of distance between us. There’s heavy dew on the grass, and we get our feet wet. Not a big deal, but one of the many inconveniences imposted upon us by the state of the world.
Almost every morning, I pass elderly people out for a morning walk, sometimes with a dog. I give these folks a wide berth, because they’re the most vulnerable among us. I always shout a hearty “Good morning!” to them so they know I’m not anti-social.
(I’ve gotten some what’s-your-problem stares as I veer off the sidewalk in passing, but this happens less frequently with time and the increasing pandemic body count.)
With the highest infection numbers yet coming out this week, it’s becoming impossible to deny that our behavior makes a difference. We’re quickly getting to the point where each of us will know someone, personally, who has contracted the virus.
Last week, I visited our favorite local supermarket. The store posts prominent signs requiring shoppers to wear a mask, and with few exceptions everyone complies. During last week’s visit, I encountered people who have apparently decided that acting with consideration for others is too egregious an imposition on their personal freedom. It wasn’t an oversight or a memory lapse—these people simply declined to wear a mask in the store.
In my experience, it has been mainly middle-aged white men who flout the mask rule. I won’t speculate here on why that might be the case. Last week, the culprits were two women, each in her twenties by my estimation, challenging my stereotype of men who look a lot like me.
One woman seemed in a hurry. She had a couple items in her arms and was headed for the front of the store. Maybe she’d reasoned that she’d only be in the store for a few minutes, so it would be alright. (I call this widely used stratagem the “It’ll Be Alright” plan.)
The other maskless one strolled behind a mostly full shopping cart. She had been in the store long enough to chase down a long shopping list. She moved at a carefree, leisurely pace.
If she was Covid-positive, it’s possible she infected several people in the store. Maybe she infected me. Who knows? That’s the thing with this virus–we don’t know at a given moment whether we’re carrying it, and we may spread it without ever noticing symptoms to people it will kill.
The first no-masker irritated me, but she was gone in a moment. The second, with her nonchalant shopping in the crowded supermarket, kindled in me the sort of anger I’d have felt if she’d issued me a swift kick in the shin. It was an assault of indifference. She didn’t give a damn about anyone in the store, didn’t care that we knew it, and dared anyone to mention it.
So I did. I said one word. “Mask.” I said it clearly, but not aggressively. She passed by, ignoring me. Because I don’t matter to her. And neither do you, Dear Reader, nor your elderly relatives or your immunocompromised friends.
So I already had a burr under my saddle when I arrived at the dairy section for a block of sharp white cheddar. A store employee stood beside a couple co-workers, talking quietly. His mask rested well below his nose, partially exposing his mouth. Before I knew what had come over me, I looked him in the eye and said, “Sir, your nose is exposed.”
“What?” He asked.
“Your nose is out. Maybe you forgot?”
He hastily pulled up his mask. I grabbed my cheese and turned away, already feeling like an ass. In fact, I felt if I saw one more person without a mask in that store, I’d…
Whoa, I thought. Easy, soldier. I had to get outside.
I’d forgotten the number-one item on my list–dog food.
I think I spooked the dairy man a bit—not my intention, but…
On the way home with not quite everything I needed, I thought, We should all stop tolerating the complacency, disdain for science, and willful ignorance that’s bringing our country to its knees. If we’re ever going to get past this thing, we have to change the way we think–from valuing individual freedom above all else to putting the welfare of our society first.
People in some Asian societies have been wearing masks in public for as long as I remember. In certain Asian cultures, rather than thinking “I don’t want to, and you can’t make me,” people recognize that no one person has the right to infect others with a cold or flu, bad breath, or even the sight of the inside of one’s mouth. It’s no coincidence that countries like Japan and Korea kept Covid-19 numbers low and got control of the pandemic pretty quickly.
When I was stationed on Oahu with the Army, I often saw Japanese tourists on the streets and in shops wearing surgical masks. At the time, it struck me as a very foreign thing to do. Did they think Americans were dirty or dangerous? I wasn’t offended—being dirty and dangerous is part of the American “mystique,” ain’t it? I wondered what it was they thought they were protecting themselves from in a modern city like Honolulu. I understand now that they were protecting me, and that they wore masks in public at home as well as abroad. I now see that “foreign” behavior as a kind of moral superiority, and thinking now about those Japanese tourists, I’m grateful for their inherent, matter-of-fact courtesy.