In the early days of the pandemic, we cared about each other.
In some everyday, unavoidable situations, such as grocery shopping, accommodations were made to help keep medically vulnerable people safe. Many stores offered early shopping hours to seniors and those with health conditions, to allow these folks additional security and comfort without additional risks to their health.
These days, the America we live in is no longer so considerate. In fact, most public spaces are downright inhospitable.
How do I know? I am newly immuno-compromised and in every single public space I have entered in the past few weeks, the unmasked are hanging around, flippant and unwavering, consciously ignoring the signs at every entry point on every door that make it clear that masks are required for everyone 3 years old and up.
I live in Jefferson County. A mask mandate went into effect just before Thanksgiving for indoor public spaces. And yet, in many public indoor spaces, you wouldn’t know it.
I will admit, before my diagnosis of eosinophilic pneumonia in late November, right around the time the mandate was put in place, I was annoyed by folks who chose not to mask indoors in public. My thought on masks from the very start has been, “What is the harm in wearing one?”
From mid-October to mid-November, I spent 15 days in the hospital. From the ER to the main floors of the hospital to the intensive-care unit, Covid-19 patients were everywhere. The hospital was entirely full, with scores of patients crowding the emergency rooms, waiting for hours until they got lucky enough to get a space upstairs.
During my three days in the ICU, I was one of the few patients who did not have Covid-19. On my second day in the ICU, over the constant whirring and compressions of the bilevel positive airway pressure — bipap — machine I was hooked up to that forced oxygen into my lungs, a man could be heard wailing loudly in the hallway; someone he loved had just died.
In mid-December, I went out to Michael’s to get a couple of art supplies for a holiday craft, deliberately choosing to venture out in the hour before closing, figuring it would be less crowded. Instead, I encountered at least four other customers who brazenly had their faces uncovered. One man’s uncovered cough ricocheted around the store. I hurriedly snatched what I needed off of the shelf and hustled to the register.
As I walked out into the open night air, I thought, Why don’t you care about us?
At home, it is your right to do as you please. If you want to smoke pot at home, go for it. If you want to gather with 100 of your closest friends for a holiday party, by all means — it’s your choice, your health. But when you decide not to put a simple piece of cloth over your face while in public — yes, one that covers both your nose and your mouth — to help protect the vulnerable, I can’t forgive that.
It’s making me hate you, and I have never hated anybody.
I happen to be an educator, though not at an in-person school. I work online — a blessing, considering my newly-discovered health condition. I am also a parent of two school-aged kids. I have watched as some school districts, such as Douglas County, have decided to do away with mask mandates in schools, instead making them optional.
Is the well-being of older teachers and students with health conditions now optional?
Their right to go to school safely overrules your right to disregard best practices that help to keep us all healthy.
Consider this: every year, in the United States, there are children who die from the flu. According to the CDC, in 2018-2019, there were 144 reported flu deaths in children. In 2019-2020, despite the fact that most schools shifted to remote learning in early 2020, there were 199 deaths. That was before masks.
Now, consider this: in 2020-2021, there was but a single pediatric flu death recorded for the entire United States. So far, for 2021-2022, with many mask policies in place in schools across the country, there have been five. A total of six since the adoption of masking policies.
If there is even the remote possibility that masks helped save lives, why wouldn’t we embrace this tactic as a way to keep each other safe?
I understand that masks can be annoying or uncomfortable at times. I know that we all just want to get back to normal again. But just as I will have to learn to live with my new, ongoing health condition, the pandemic is not done with us yet. We have to learn how to live with it. Willful ignorance will not make things better.
A mask might just be a piece of cloth, but wearing a mask in public indoor spaces is a moral issue. It’s about humanity. It’s about caring for others, whether you know them or not. It’s doing the right thing, even though you may not like it. It’s about letting all of us experience equity in our lives and experiences.
Sadly, in America, it seems we just don’t care about each other. And as I continue to encounter the brazenly unmasked, I am stunned. It makes me wonder, “Why don’t you care about us?”
Cindy Shapiro lives in Littleton.
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