It's as if a global pandemic failed to instill in us the most basic public health courtesy:
Sick people, mask up.
At this stage, I'm not talking about mask mandates for everyone. We all see how that went down.
But it would be swell if folks who are coughing and sneezing could stay home, or at the very least, wear a mask in public. If you've been on a plane lately, eaten at a restaurant or ridden the bus, you've probably witnessed people hacking up their lungs with total disregard of airborne droplets escaping their mouths. Do they not notice everyone around them cringing and immediately foraging their own handbags or jacket pockets for an N95?
Blame my grumpiness on the season's unholy trinity of RSV, influenza and COVID-19. A wretched cough has been aggressively lingering in my household for a month while taking out schoolchildren by the drove. An early start to the winter viral season has clogged hospital beds. Last week a Children's Minnesota official described the unprecedented sight of having 30 to 40 children waiting in the emergency department for an inpatient bed.
How far we've fallen since sewing our own masks, for our family and strangers alike, as part of the Early Pandemic Era of solidarity and kindness. The mask became weaponized. Many on the right saw it as an attack on their individual freedom. Many on the left clamored for mandates to continue, even after vaccines and at-home tests became widely available and hospitalizations were at their lowest point.
When we turned the mask into a symbol of someone's political convictions, we stopped seeing it for what it was: a simple but effective item that could help curtail a virus. Is that why we've become reluctant to wear them now? Or do we all feel we have moved into a post-mask world, never to put that genie back in the bottle?
Granted, the confusing messaging from public health officials at the start of the pandemic didn't help. They said masks weren't necessary for asymptomatic people and actually discouraged folks from buying them, only to later reverse course. Dr. Anthony Fauci acknowledged that health officials downplayed mask wearing partly because they were in short supply, and health care workers needed the protection the most.
But that communications gaffe was more than two years ago, a period in which we've definitely aged 10 and have grown infinitely wiser. Right?
I recently kept my sick kid home from school for five days. When he returned to school with a cough, I sent him on the bus wearing a mask. He did not wear it home. It was something he easily endured for nearly two years, but now he couldn't bear to strap it to his face again. He probably found it inconvenient and uncomfortable and forgot about it after lunch.
But he is 5. He's still learning about social responsibility.
As for the adults coughing on a plane my family took to Hawaii earlier this year, who knows why they couldn't mask up. My dad, who's in declining health and had to be pressured to take this trip for his 50th wedding anniversary, tested positive for COVID his third night there. He spent the rest of his week in paradise feeling weak and tired while sequestered in a hotel room, waving to his grandkids in the pool from his balcony.
We know by now that masks aren't 100% effective in preventing transmission. They need to be used in combination with frequent handwashing, covering one's cough (into the elbow, please!), getting vaccinated and disinfecting. And fixating on masks is no replacement for bigger changes, like universal paid sick leave.
Even though I'm making a personal plea for the sick among us to mask up, I confess I didn't do it 100% of the time when I was fighting my cough. I felt conspicuous in a mask after going without one for so long. But it should not take an airline edict or the blunt tool of a government mandate for us to do the right thing. Wearing a mask when we're sick and contagious may help us protect others.
People with flulike symptoms have been masking up in Asian countries long before COVID-19, a bare-minimum courtesy and a small individual choice that implies a shared desire for a civil society.
In our country, don't let the mask be a symbol of the culture war. Make no assumptions about the person wearing one at the store. It might mean "I have compromised immunity," or "I live with a vulnerable person." It does not signal weakness, politics or fear.
It might just indicate we've learned a thing or two during a pandemic and that we haven't stopped caring about others.