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.

It’s My Right!

In the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the worst such event in more than a century, a prominent political leader recently told her constituents, If you want to wear a mask, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Really?  In the middle of the pandemic, does this not seem illogical?  The best scientific evidence indicates pretty clearly that, by wearing a mask while around other people, we can severely limit the transmission of the virus—thereby protecting those around us, our family, friends, and fellow-citizens.

For comparison’s sake, I’ve modified the woman’s statement to apply to other situations, to see if they would make sense—to see if they might impinge on another person’s rights.  You be the judge.

If you want to stop your car at a red light, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to stop, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the potential carnage?

If you want to wear seatbelts while driving, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear them, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the increase in personal injury?

If you want to drive while sober, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the inevitable devastation?

If you don’t want to smoke in a public setting, that’s fine.  You are free not to do so.  If you do want to smoke there, don’t be shamed by it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the outcry?

If you want to use the store’s escalator to go up one floor, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you want to push your way back down on the up-escalator, don’t be ashamed to do it.  That is your right.

Can you imagine the confusion and anger?

Of course, there are all manner of situations where an individual person’s choice to do something, or not do it, will engender no meaningful effect on others.  For example, If you want to wear winter boots after a heavy snowfall, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to wear boots, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

Another example:  If you want to study for your final exams, go ahead.  You are free to do so.  If you don’t want to study, don’t be shamed into it.  That is your right.

And a third:  If you don’t want to wear a paisley tie with a striped shirt, plaid jacket, and check slacks, just don’t.  You are free not to do so.  But if you do want to, don’t be ashamed about it.  That is your right.

None of these three personal decisions is likely to have a profound effect on someone else’s autonomy, unlike the first statement and its five adaptations.  And that, of course, is the whole point.

A familiar maxim, first promulgated by an obscure legal philosopher, Zechariah Chafee, Jr., holds that a person’s right to swing his arms freely ends where the other person’s nose begins.  In other words, your personal rights are not allowed to impinge on mine.

John Stuart Mill, in his famous work, On Liberty, postulated:  The maxims are, first, that the individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself. Advice, instruction, persuasion, and avoidance by other people if thought necessary by them for their own good, are the only measures by which society can justifiably express its dislike or disapprobation of his conduct.

Secondly, that for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of others, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection.

I have long been of the opinion that Mill’s work provides us with a near-perfect definition of the boundary between our individual rights and our societal obligations.  And when I apply that definition to the exhortations of public health officials during the pandemic that we all wear a mask when out and about in the company of others, I find their pleas to be eminently logical.

It seems to me, therefore, that if government determines the actions of some people are, in Mills’s words, prejudicial to the interests of others—in this case, the general health and welfare of the citizenry—the wearing of masks in public places should be mandated by government officials.  I further believe that scofflaws who flout the requirement should, also in Mills’s words, be subjected…to legal punishment.

The same controversy will arise, I’m sure, when vaccines against COVID-19 become available to the general populace.  Some of us will line up eagerly to get it; others will dig in their heels, perhaps proclaiming, If I don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s my right.  I am free not to do so. 

To them, I would say, If you don’t want to get vaccinated, that’s fine.  That is your right.  But if you want to present yourself in community settings where people congregate—such as malls, schools, churches, or city parks—don’t be surprised when you are denied access.  That is our right.

Like any chain, our society is only as strong as its weakest link.