The idea of going outside my house terrifies me right now. Some may judge that as an overreaction, and I will say with all love and kindness that I hope you’re right. I hope I have no reason to be so scared. I hope society re-opens in such an incremental way that the current pandemic is totally contained. I pray every day that no one I know or love even tangentially with six degrees of separation suffers or dies from this illness.
However, the medical community is telling me there’s a threat out there. I trust that community. I believed them when I received notices of Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) in my area of Florida about ten years ago. That’s spread by mosquitos, and I know how to avoid those. I didn’t go out between dawn and dusk unless I doused myself in bug spray. I even bought a bat house, since bats are known to eat mosquitos. However, when that arrived, my husband’s eyebrows actually touched his hairline in disbelief. “You really want to be the bat lady?” he asked. With this current viral outbreak and it’s bat-source, I’m kind of glad I returned it.
So, yeah. Maybe I I take the medical community overly-seriously. But they say a virus is out there. They say it’s deadly. They say it spreads through droplets in the air and on surfaces, but they can’t tell as of yet how long it lives. They can’t tell who has it, because many carriers are asymptomatic. They can’t tell who is more susceptible, or why some even young, healthy people develop complications that lead to death. So, with all these unknowns, I’m scared–for my mom, my father-in-law, my older relatives and even, to a certain extent, for my husband and myself. There’s an invisible enemy out there which often shows no signs of existence until after you’re infected. And honestly, who doesn’t find the invisible enemy more terrifying than the one charging at you? Jaws isn’t terrifying because of the giant shark. Jaws is terrifying because of the fin.
So, what are we to do with an invisible threat we don’t understand? The only answer: we do our best to be as kind, careful, and cautious as we can. But what does that look like? When we’re finally out and about again, does it have to look like this?
Some people think so. In their article, “Masks for All? The Science Says Yes,” Trisha Greenhalgh (Professor of Primary Health Care Sciences at the University of Oxford) and Jeremy Howard (founding researcher at Fast.ai, where the article is published) claim that if everyone wears a mask while going about their daily business, the reproduction value, or R0 of the virus can dip below 1.0. For a virus to stay in circulation, it has to infect at least one other person. If the number dips below 1.0, the virus dies out. This might mean that wearing a simple cloth mask (not an N95 because those should be reserved for medical workers who are going to have sick people coughing in their faces) could significantly suppress the spread of this virus to the point where it dies out without a vaccine.
Wishful thinking? Maybe. Possible way to stop the spread? I am the woman who bought a bat house. Of course I’m part of Team Mask. It’s a piece of cloth over the face. I don’t have to wear it at home, in my yard, or in my driveway. I won’t fight over whether it has to be worn in non-essential places (when they open) where people believe they can keep at least six feet away from others. I can’t imagine it would be useable at dine-in restaurants, or at gyms. How would anyone get their hair done with one on? It might not even be wearable at the beach. I honestly wouldn’t try to walk around my block in Florida wearing one with the heat and the humidity the way it’s going to be. But here’s the thing: those of us really freaked out about the virus aren’t going to be eating in restaurants, going to gyms, getting our hair done, or heading to the beach any time soon. We may not even be walking around the block. But we all have to go to the grocery store, the pharmacy, pet supply stores and doctor’s offices–and if you think I’ll be wearing a mask there, you’d be right.
This made me wonder if, at some point, we’re going to become a society of “the masked vs. the unmasked.” If so, how will we be viewed? Will the masked be applauded? Ostracized? And will the opposite happen to the unmasked? Which way is society going to go?
Here’s what I do know: those people who are going out wearing masks are doing so for four reasons, in no particular order: 1. They are afraid to catch the virus. 2. They are afraid to give someone the virus. 3. They are donning a mask to represent their love of society and solidarity with the vulnerable population in our area. 4. Someone made them wear one. Whether the mask-wearer meets one or all of these criteria, three out of four of them are not going to be particularly happy. The ones in fear are certainly not happy. The ones being made to wear a mask by, you know, their mom (which will be my daughters) are not going to be happy. Maybe the ones doing it out of sheer love of society will be happy, but I’ve already worn a mask outside a number of times and here’s one thing they won’t be: comfortable. (Note: brush your teeth before wearing a mask. Or gargle. Or chew gum. The most innocuous lunch can cause great olfactory discomfort when breath is trapped in a mask. I don’t know how medical people haven’t been whining about this for years).
So there is a strong chance that those in masks are afraid, annoyed, and/or uncomfortable. These are three situations in which people may find it hard to be kind, no matter how advanced they are in the practice of loving kindness and mindfulness. I mean, I’m really big on choosing love. Yet I have a feeling that, if I go to the grocery store and see someone without a mask, I am going to view that person as someone who is threatening me, my family, my community, and those I love out of either hubris or carelessness. I doubt any in my area can claim ignorance or incapacity to acquire one when even a bandanna will do.
This doesn’t mean that I actually think those who choose not to wear a mask are bad people at heart. I understand that, perhaps, they don’t feel that masks are all that protective. Some feel they will put themselves at more risk because their mask will keep slipping and they’ll end up touching their face more in adjusting the mask than they would if they weren’t wearing one. Others will feel claustrophobic. There are a million reasons that a kind mind will find to explain to themselves why others are not wearing masks.
Except that even those mask-wearers who normally cultivate kindness are not going to be in a mental state conducive to the practice. I think there is a strong chance that the mask wearing population will see those not wearing masks as being inconsiderate and dangerous jerks. At the least, they are going to be afraid of them. Thus, non-mask wearers might want to keep their distance if only out of respect, because there is a strong chance that masked person is really scared. Granted, if someone is not wearing a mask, those in masks will most likely try to keep their distance out of self-preservation, and would hope to be given the space to do so. Otherwise, they might have to go outside in garb like this:
And really, who wants that?