Sometimes a Right….Isn’t

Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams has recorded a public service message about the coronavirus, currently airing on radio stations.  In it, he reminds us that we “should” wash our hands frequently and thoroughly, that we “should” stay six feet apart from others “if possible,” and if that’s not possible, “I’m begging you,” he says, “Please!  Wear a mask.”  He closes with the suggestion that we adopt the mantra, “The coronavirus stops with me.”

In view of the pandemic death toll thus far (180,000+), and considering that new cases are continuing apace, Adams’ remarks are mild, indeed.  Perhaps the spot has been tailored so as to offend the smallest number of listeners.  After all, we wouldn’t want the government telling us we MUST or MUST NOT do something.  Or even worse, using the fighting word, “cannot.”  Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer found out what happens when people are ordered to wear masks:  the state capitol building is mobbed by armed citizens who don’t like to be told what to do.  They insist on the freedom (or, “freedumb”) to do exactly as they please, even if it means spreading the virus.  The buffoon in the Oval Office stands by those rugged individualists, unless, of course, they peacefully and legally protest racism.

The mindset of the “no mask” faction is clear, but the reason for deserves scrutiny.  There’s an urban legend making the rounds that says masks actually make one more likely to get sick, so it could be that some people have chosen to buy into that nonsense, illogical as it is.  For the rest of the maskless, the only explanation appears to be sheer selfishness.  Because they don’t want to wear face coverings, and they’re by-God ’Merricans, they shouldn’t have to.  Even if doing so could get the pandemic under control within two months, according to the CDC.  Now if those who stomp their feet and refuse to budge on the issue were to take themselves out to the middle of nowhere, sans contact with anyone, and live for a year with their convictions, I’d say, “More power to them.”  Unfortunately, they don’t, meaning that they make the decision to possibly infect others.  By asserting their rights to bare faces, they endanger the rest of the population, but they have no qualms about that.  Several times, I’ve seen young parents with small children, even babies in strollers, walking down the street and through stores with no masks.  I simply can’t get my head around that.  How could any parent justify risking his or her children’s health?  While symptoms in children are generally milder, occasionally, they aren’t.  Even so, to cavalierly decide that one’s children will take the risk is beyond arrogant and cruel. 

The root of this selfishness is the peculiarly American belief that the individual is as important as, or even more important than, the group.  Though our country was formed under the concept of majority rule, our society is stuck in the romantic ideal of the tough pioneer, the gritty adventurer who strikes out and makes his own way (“his,” because most of the time, women were given no choice but to go where their men did), defying the odds and accepted wisdom.  This delusion persists through all the “we’re in this together” campaigns that have sprung up through the years for various causes.  Certainly, it’s the basis for our obsessive gun culture, which also ignores risks to the community.

What would it look like if the overwhelming majority of our country gave up its selfishness and insistence on individual rights, and instead worked for the welfare of the whole?  What if the neighborhood, the city, and the country were more important than each person’s wishes?

Answer: aside from a sharp decrease in many of the ills in our society (violence, for instance), we’d ALL be wearing masks.  People would be ashamed to go without them, because by doing so, they’d instantly label themselves as uncaring, and that would carry a social stigma.  Blatantly rejecting the good of the group would be taboo, beyond the pale, a shunning offense.  Whether or not one actually did care about others, one would feel compelled to at least give the appearance of caring.  Doing the right thing would be a matter of course.

Several Asian countries, such as Vietnam and South Korea, were able to shut down the coronavirus rapidly, with relatively few deaths.  They were able to do that because people looked after each other, showed concern for fellow citizens, and put their societies first.  Masks were the rule, and those who neglected them were subject to public mask shaming.  That’s a powerful tactic, and it led to compliance instead of belligerence.

In the United States, we’re proud of our freedom, and we idolize our individualism, our separateness.  We’d be a stronger, more compassionate nation, though, if we’d emphasize “doing right” instead of “demanding our rights.”

2 thoughts on “Sometimes a Right….Isn’t

  1. Right on Denise! I dashed into the Orange Avenue Post Office last week with my mask in my pocket and was confronted by every clerk and a couple of the patrons – very embarrassing. And to make it worse, it was not the double-faced mask with the coffee filter pocket that I like to wear in public buildings; it was the really comfortable mask I wear when walking the dogs in the park with only one layer and no pocket. It was a timely reminder to pay attention.

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