Vaccines and Face Masks Are Our Best Options to Beat COVID-19

The scenario I am about to describe is not hypothetical. It did not happen to me, but it recently happened to someone I know well. I think it provides us with an important illustration of what those of us who would like to see the end of the COVID-19 pandemic are up against.

You are walking into your local grocery store, wearing a face mask like any good citizen who recognizes that they are part of a society in which other people exist, when a woman who is not wearing a face mask approaches you. "Can I ask you a question?" You brace yourself for the onslaught of anti-masker nonsense you have been hearing so much about on the local news, but that is not what happens.

"Are we supposed to wear masks in here?" You really just want to get in the store, do your shopping, and get out as soon as you can; however, you don't want to be rude. You take a deep breath and explain why you are doing what you are doing to the best of your ability:

I don't think this store is requiring masks. I am wearing one even though I am vaccinated because the latest recommendations from the CDC are asking everyone to wear masks in public indoor locations since people who have been vaccinated can still spread the virus to others.

The woman pauses for a moment, tells you that she too is vaccinated, and says, "I'm just so confused what we are supposed to do. It keeps changing, and I don't know who to trust."

You know what? I can relate to this woman. I have felt this way too, and I suspect many others have as well. We need to remember that not everyone is following the news as closely as some of us are. The CDC does keep changing their story. While I realize that this is bound to happen because we are learning more about the virus, that doesn't make it much less frustrating. And if I feel that way, someone who isn't closely following the news probably feels it even more intensely. Maybe they are doing the best they can, but that does not mean that the messaging has been good.

From the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I think that most of us have had a general understanding that face masks were more about protecting others than protecting the wearer. That's not to say that face masks provide no protection to the wearer, only that the primary aim was to protect others (who would in turn protect us by wearing masks of their own). And yes, I also think most of us realized that the type of masks to which we had access didn't offer much protection to anyone but were still better than nothing.

This raises an interesting question when someone wearing a face mask is confronted by an angry anti-masker in a public location who demands to know why they are wearing a mask. Upon hearing the rationale that one is wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the virus and protect others, the anti-masker may respond with something like:

That's bullshit! I don't need your protection, and I never asked you to protect me!

Unlike the woman in the entrance to the grocery store above, I cannot relate to this person. And in moments like this, it can be hard to maintain one's humanism. At least, I find it difficult to do so. Are there cases where we need to protect those who are unable (or unwilling) to protect themselves? Young children and people suffering from serious mental illness come to mind. But just because some of these anti-maskers are beginning to act like young children or people afflicted with delusions does not necessarily mean we should take measures to protect them from themselves, does it?

I know the drunk driving metaphor isn't perfect, but it is the one I keep thinking of. If I claim that I should be allowed to drive drunk because the only person I'm hurting by doing so is myself, everyone will rightly reject this claim. When I drive drunk, I am putting others at risk. When I go out in public without a mask, I am putting others at risk. I am vaccinated, but it now appears that being vaccinated does little, if anything, to prevent me from spreading the virus to others. Refusing to wear a mask because I am vaccinated is a little bit like refusing to stop drunk driving because I'm wearing a seat belt when I do so. Perhaps we should view mask refusal in similar ways as we view drunk driving.

The more people who refuse to be vaccinated and refuse to wear face masks, the longer the virus will remain with us. The fastest way to achieve the return to normal is to get your vaccine and do your part to protect public health by wearing a mask (even if your Republican governor or member of Congress opposes it).

But why? Why should I have to give up "muh freedums" by getting shots I don't want and wearing something uncomfortable on my face? For the same reason you should give up your freedom to drive drunk and because you are a member of a society. The world does not revolve around you, and you are not the only person in it. We are all in this together, and it is time to accept the responsibility that comes with freedom and membership in a society. You cannot expect anybody else to give a damn about you and what you want as long as you continue to angrily flaunt your stubborn refusal to give a damn about everyone who is not you.

To the political conservatives who continue to refuse vaccination and criticize those of us who are wearing face masks in the interest of public health, your ideological brethren have been complaining about the erosion of our culture for at least as long as I've been alive. And you know what? I think they have a valid point. It does seem like we've lost something, but I disagree with them that what we've lost is Christian values, blind obedience to authority, or American exceptionalism. I think what we've lost is empathy for our fellow humans, the willingness to balance freedom and responsibility, and the basic social contract in which we recognize that we are members of a society that will sometimes ask us to make small sacrifices for the greater good.