The Simpler Option

Growing up, my brother and I slept in twin beds in a shared bedroom, an arrangement that worked well for the most part.  But both of us suffered from seasonal allergies, he more than I, and as little boys, those caused a few summertime disagreements between us.

As we were trying to fall asleep, I’d often hear my brother sniffing repeatedly in a vain effort to stop his nose from running.  I’d try to block out the sound, even burying my head under my pillow, but to no avail.

“Blow your nose!” I’d hiss.  Another annoying sniff would be my answer.

“Stop sniffing or I’ll smack you!” I’d threaten after a few more minutes.  “Just blow your nose!”  Another sniff would invariably follow, and then a few more for good measure.  My brother was stubborn, if nothing else.

So in a rage, I’d bound out of bed and follow through on my promise.  He’d yell angrily and punch back, and we’d end up rolling and thrashing on his bed until my father arrived to administer a small rat-a-tat-tat on our backsides with the short, leather strap kept for such occasions.

These episodes always ended with my brother and me, both crying, back under the covers, and my  father warning us there better be no more fighting.  “And blow your nose!” he’d order my brother, handing him a tissue from the box on the table between our beds.  Chastened, my brother would do as he was told.

Falling asleep a while later, I’d wonder resentfully why he’d never comply when I told him the same thing.  So much anguish and pain would have been spared us both if he had chosen the simpler option.

“He’s so stupid!” I’d tell myself.  Things seemed simple when we were little boys.

But almost seventy years later, I find myself wondering the same thing about our population at large with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that’s been afflicting us over and over and over again since late 2019. Viruses like these evolve their genetic codes over time through mutations or recombination during replication of their structure, and COVID-19 is no exception.

SARS-CoV-2 variations have been grouped by medical trackers into four broad categories: variants being monitored, variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence.  The latest VOC lineages are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, with a newer one on the horizon, BA.2.75.  Epidemiologists, immunologists, and virologists tell us these variants demonstrate transmissibility increases; more severe disease manifestation, as evidenced by increased hospitalizations or deaths; a marked reduction in protection from antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination; and a reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines.

Sounds clear-cut to me—we’re becoming increasingly less-able to withstand the onslaught even as the viruses are mutating to avoid our defences.

Based on everything I’ve read from reputable sources—i.e. those whose mission is to present public health information based on evidence, as opposed to those who take a more relaxed approach based on political considerations—there are several practical measures we could be taking to mitigate the effects of the metamorphosing virus across the population.  Such measures require a degree of self-discipline and consideration for others, however—attributes that, so far, have been missing en masse.  Perhaps that’s why we have been singularly unsuccessful in reducing the disease to more a manageable endemic status.

Such simple mitigations have been grouped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) into three types: personal controls, administrative controls, and engineered controls.  The first type requires each of us to assume responsibility for our own health by obtaining vaccinations and keeping them up-to-date, masking when in large groups indoors, testing when symptoms appear, informing those with whom we may have been in contact when we test positive, and isolating for ten days once afflicted.

The second type includes such measures as government mandating of up-to-date vaccinations for people wishing to attend certain venues and activities where others gather, and mandating mask-wearing for those same venues and activities.  These measures do not force people to get vaccinated or wear a mask, but they do establish those actions as prerequisites for participation.  And that only serves to protect the general welfare, surely a primary objective for any elected government. 

Enacting minimum requirements for paid sick-leave among the work-force would be another example of how administrative measures could work to reduce the spread of the disease.  Also, a greater commitment to communicating information about such measures to the public, coupled with more effective methods of doing so, are surely measures any responsible government would want to implement.  No?

The third type, engineered controls, would include, among other things, improving ventilation in buildings where the public gathers; providing ample supplies of testing kits and masks to public agencies; maintaining and improving the supply chains that keep our economy running smoothly; and planning intelligently to forestall the inevitable rise of future pandemic diseases.

Which situation is worse, I wonder?  Is it one where an economy slows precipitously because small businesses have to shut down for want of customers objecting to vaccine and mask mandates?  Or is it one where an economy slows ruinously because too many customers, not to mention employees, of businesses, hospitals, and other essential services are absent due to sickness?

Both are bad, but the first less so, if the simple mitigations described earlier could be put in place to ensure a shorter period of deprivation for all of us.  We could take advantage of that option if enough of us would decide to adopt the preventive measures that will forestall an endless repetition of SARS-CoV-2 surges, one after the other ad infinitum.

It’s unfortunate that too many of us, like my stubborn brother so many years ago, will not follow the simpler option.  The long-term consequences of their intransigence will be far worse for our collective well-being than the short-term pain inflicted by that leather strap on our tender buttocks was for my brother and me.

Still Wearing a Mask?

“How come you’re still wearing a mask?”  The question came out of nowhere from the man sitting at the other end of the shopping-mall bench.  I was waiting for my wife to exit one of the shops, and I assumed he was waiting on someone, too.

“Why do you care?” I replied, touching my mask self-consciously.

He shrugged.  “Don’t really care, I guess.  None of my business, really, but I’m just curious.  You’re ‘bout the only one in the whole mall who’s wearing one.  They say Covid’s over, right?”

I followed his gaze, noticed a few maskers among the passers-by, but not many.  “You really want to know?” I asked.  “Or are you just trying to hector me?”

“My name’s not Hector,” he said with a tiny grin, and we both laughed.  “Hey, I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t want an answer.”

“Okay,” I said, encouraged to engage.  “You ever been hit by a train?”

“A train?  Not that I recall, and I think I would.  Why?”  The grin lingered.

“Do you ever walk along rail-lines or across trestles?” I asked.

“Of course not.  Train-time is anytime, right?  That’s what the signs say.”

“Would your odds of being hit by a train be higher or lower if you did choose to walk the tracks, ignoring the signs?” I asked.

He looked around for a moment, puffing his cheeks.  “Higher, I guess.  What’s that got to do with wearing a mask?”

“I think my odds of catching Covid are higher if I don’t wear a mask,” I said.  “I’ve never been hit by a train, either, and like you, I don’t tempt fate by walking along the tracks.  Nor have I had Covid, so I’m just looking to lower the odds of catching it.”

“You can still catch it, even wearing a mask,” he said.

“You can,” I agreed.  “Even though, as you mentioned a minute ago, they claim it’s over.”

He looked at me, didn’t reply.

“I’m not sure who they are, but despite what you might’ve heard, Covid is not over,” I continued.  “According to what I read, it will never be over, just like smallpox, cholera, diphtheria or polio aren’t over.  Those viruses will always be with us, and it’s up to us to protect ourselves.  Vaccinations and masking are two of the best ways of doing that.”

“You vaxed?” the man asked.

“Four times,” I said.  “And I’ll get another shot when my doctor recommends it.”

“Me and my wife are double-vaxed,” the man said.  “They told us that’s all we needed.”  He smiled as he said it.

“I know vaxes and masks don’t guarantee I won’t get it,” I said.  “But I think they affect the odds in my favour.”

“Some people think the government’s got no right to make everybody wear masks,” the man said.  “They say it’s a free country and they got free choice.”

After pondering that for a bit, I said, “I could agree with them, I suppose.  You’ve made your choice, I’ve made mine, and both of us have the right to do that. But we will face the consequences of our choices.  Still, nobody has the right to infringe on the rights of others, either.”

“Meaning what?”

“You ever get on an empty elevator and smell cigarette smoke?” I asked.

“Not lately,” he replied.  “Can’t smoke indoors now, remember?”

“But what if some jackass doesn’t follow that rule?  What if they do smoke in an elevator, and then you get on after they’ve left?  You enjoy the smell of second-hand smoke?”

“I gave up smoking years ago,” the man said.

“Okay, good!  Now suppose that guy, instead of being a smoker, has Covid,” I continued.  “He’s on the elevator you’re going to get on, maybe on his phone, so the droplets and aerosols from his talking and breathing are being released into the air.”

“Yeah, so?”

“So those aerosols hang around when he gets off,” I said.  “Like second-hand cigarette smoke, except you can’t see or smell them.  And science has told us the Covid virus is attached to those aerosols, which is how the disease spreads.  You breathe them in, even if the sick guy has gone, and next thing you know…”

“If that’s how Covid spreads, why are they always telling us to wash our hands?” the man asked.

“Exactly!” I exclaimed.  “Why do they tell us that?  Hand-washing is good for overall hygiene, no question.  But that’s not how Covid spreads.”

“How do you know?”

“I know because I choose who to listen to, who to read,” I said.  “Epidemiologists and immunologists are more reliable, as a rule, than politicians or others with vested interests.  I could follow all the advice from the best experts and still get Covid, I know that.  But again, it’s all about rigging the odds in my favour.”

“So you don’t think Covid is over?”

“No one thinks it’s over,” I said.  “Even they—the people who keep telling us we don’t need to mask up—even they don’t think it’s over.  Instead, they tell us it’s time to get on with our lives, learn to live with it, make our own risk-assessments.  The problem is, they no longer provide us with the information we need to assess our risks effectively.  No testing and no reporting, even though they know the Covid variants are here to stay, in one mutation or another.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard about variants,” he said.  “What one are we on now?”

“Based on what I’ve read,” I said, “the dominant variants here now are Omicron BA.4 and BA.5, which are highly transmissible and perhaps as severe as the original BA.2 variant.  Rather than attacking the upper-respiratory tract, they go deeper into the lungs like that variant did, and they’re more likely to evade immunity.”

The man watched the people marching past us for a few moments.

“I agree we do have to learn to live with this disease,” I said, “because it’s not ever going away.  And until we achieve some sort of immunity, if we ever do, wearing a mask is one excellent way I have to protect myself and others around me.  Staying up to date with vaxes is another, and testing is a third.  And when I do any of those things, it doesn’t impinge on your rights at all.  But people who don’t do any of those things, if they become ill, can infect others around them—which is an infringement on the rights of those affected.”

“I can see that, I guess,” the man said.

“And contrary to what people might tell you,” I said, “you can get re-infected—more than once—and the effects of long-Covid are only now beginning to be realized.  The consequences of ignoring simple precautions like masking can be awfully severe.”

“So how long are you going to keep wearing the mask?”

I shrugged.  “How long are you going to refuse?”

He shrugged, too, the tiny grin returning.  “Until the facts convince me it’s best to wear one, I guess.”

“Same here,” I said, rising to join my wife who I’d spied coming out of a store, bags in hand.  “I’ll wear it until the facts tell me it’s not needed anymore.”

The man waved farewell.  “Thanks for the TED talk,” he grinned cheerfully. 

“My name’s not Ted,” I said, and we both laughed again.

As I walked away, I heard him start to cough.