• Dr. Vin

Mask

Updated: Aug 15


People: I love them, and I miss them. My heart longs not to be so fearful; my heart longs to extend my hands and watch my 4-year-old grandson run into my arms. I scoop him up, twirl him around and smell the salty sweet sweat of his blond head. We had thought of renting a recreational vehicle, crossing 5 states to go see the grandkids, but this indiscriminatory virus has strengthened, having recently surged back up in its war with humanity, killing more people.

I could have seen family sooner if we all were stricter, but this is the USA and we won’t change. So, my sadness turns to anger at the no-maskers and low-maskers. And I try to understand because it helps me not get stuck in the anger.

The USA is conflicted about how to behave in the middle of this world-wide pandemic. We have no coherent national plan on how to fight this enemy. This increases our losses in the battle. There is a continuum in levels of compliance with the CDC recommendation for mask-wearing. I think there are two camps of no-maskers or low-maskers. There are the “Gotta be free to breathe” individualists, who follow their leader. They minimize the danger of the disease, deny that it exists, and/or hold conspiracy theories based on paranoid points of view. Then there is another group. They do not follow a leader but still minimize the dangers of mixing in public without a mask. They have not seen the disease closeup and have not been as cautious with physical distancing. This is month five and they have not become infected, nor have others near them. Psychology tells me that if I get a reward for my behavior, I may be drawn to continue that behavior. If I haven’t gotten Covid-19 by being only moderately careful, I begin to believe that I am not going to get it, nor give it. My behavior is reinforced. And there is social pressure to conform to the level of those around me.

For example, we went to a dinner party and were all 6-10 feet apart and all wearing masks, while the hostess cooked dinner. Then she felt hot in her kitchen and removed her mask. Drinks were passed around and others did not re-don their masks after drinking. By the time dinner came the host said, “Sit in any room in the house, there is lots of space.” But one person announced, “Ah, we can all sit at the same table.” He was enjoying everyone’s company and did not want to be separated. We felt pressure to comply. We sat next to our spouses and maybe 2-3 feet from others at the same table. For the next 5 to 14 days, we worried about contracting the virus but did not get it. We were lucky.

On the 4th of July people gathered in big groups against the advice of the CDC. As the skies burst with fireworks, bombs burst through the air. Covid-19 spread throughout the closely packed crowds and was one of the causes of the subsequent resurgence in current number of positive cases in the USA. On the 4th of July we sing the US National Anthem.

Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free…”

What is freedom? Some risk visits with others because they do not want to restrict their access to connect in person with others. They do not feel “free” if restricted from this contact. My sister, who lives near me said, “I am not as cautious as you, but not as careless as some others. Everyone lives their life the way they want.” What we define as “free” varies, but often includes making myself feel safe, balanced and entertained. This is a particularly American quality, valuing the individual over the group. Feeling a responsibility to the collective is traditionally not very American. Friends in New Zealand and Canada expressed to me some bewilderment about this American response in a time of such an obvious world-wide crisis. Why is following the CDC guidelines a collective as well as an individual response? It is because when I practice safe distancing, follow mask protocols and restrict my contacts, I protect myself, you and all of us from the spread of this virus.

“… and the home of the brave.”

Home of the brave? Here is what I think is bravery: people keeping the big picture in mind and containing their impulses. I choose to contain my impulse to go see my 4-year-old grandson. He told me over video chat, “Nana, get in a line, get on a plane, come to my house. Play robots with me.” My eyes filled with tears because I cannot go see him or his brother or my daughter without risking endangering myself and others.

Another of my sisters turned down a planned birthday visit here out of safety, as the virus recently surged upward here in California. She said, “It feels like a dark cloud pushing me down, to keep me from visiting.” It hurt her to contain this impulse for in-person contact, when her heart wanted to expand and come see us.

My brother has to face fear and danger and be as diligent as possible, as he suits up daily to treat the active Covid-19 patients in the cardiac unit of his hospital. That is brave.

“…Thru the perilous fight…and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air…”

This is a perilous fight. I am looking at this fight through the lens of containment versus expansion. We are dodging bullets we cannot see as we run through the field of battle in the dark. It is a challenge to remain more contained than we would like to be, to stay hidden in the trenches for so long. We are in month 5 of cramped quarters. We have had to find internal and external sources of strength in order to cope. Suicides have increased. It makes sense that when the economy began to open in fits and starts, we wanted to expand and venture out. Some of us went to a bar, to a rally, or to the beach and came back safe, having not seen the enemy. But the unseen enemy attacked and now we have been ordered to retreat.

There is a struggle between containing (letting that dark cloud hold you back) and expansion (a longing to connect in person). Every time we expand, the silent virus latches on to one of us like a tic. And jumps our body to the next person within 6 feet. We then carry the virus and are either asymptomatic, or we get sick and recover or we get sick and it attacks our lungs so badly we have to be intubated, and some of will live through that 30-60 days of hell and some of us will die. Alone. Each person must weigh the risks he/she/they are willing to take.

There is a continuum. The “Un-contained” refuse to heed any safety precautions in this war and wander out into open fields. They endanger us all and the enemy smiles. The “Over-contained” are the most rigid in safety compliance. I am that way. But I do not have to work at any job that places me any closer than a computer screen to other people. Many working people cannot do that. I am lucky that I can stay in my bunker at such low risk to danger. I moderate my fear, my boredom, and my loneliness by taking breaks or by reaching out, but I do it from inside the bunker.

When we were young children, we were playing football on the front lawn when my father appeared at the door and told us to come inside for dinner. We ignored him for too long. He got frustrated and said, “I would like it that if I told you to lie down on a train track, you would all do it immediately, without question.” I asked him what that meant. He said, “I am the one who sees the train coming. You kids are playing on the tracks and there is no time to run. Your only chance for survival is to lie down on the tracks.” We all know people are dying terrible deaths from Covid-19, but we can minimize the danger when we do not see the light from a train barreling our way. My friend was hiking and saw too few people with masks. She began confronting people and asking, “Mask?” as she passed them. One guy apologized and another man look affronted. She concluded that, for now, it is too dangerous to hike there anymore.

Like my hiking friend, some of us are waving our hands to get the attention of the low-maskers and no-maskers, who do not want to contain their impulses for the greater good. We are saying, “Hey, wear a mask, or you might die or kill me.” But like my Dad, we are ignored, and the Covid-19 train keeps coming, and the death toll keeps rising.

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