By Osy Ekwueme
There is nothing cowardly about choosing caution in the face of a pandemic. Since early spring, newspaper headlines and top stories on nightly newscasts have been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of these stories have been cautionary in tone, sharing the best advice experts have at the time on how to reduce the chances of contracting the virus and ways to slow its spread.
The difference between early spring and now is that cases are climbing even in almost all counties in USA. The pandemic now seems much more real than it has in the past. As with any outbreak of communicable disease, people are urged to follow common sense safety precautions to protect themselves and at at-risk members of the population. Some of the precautions such as washing hands for 20 seconds, avoiding touching your face or mouth, avoiding large gatherings, covering your cough, or staying home when you are sick are obvious and are core to preventing the spread of a number of respiratory illnesses. For the most part, these steps have been met with understanding, if not always fully embraced.
Guidelines advising and, in some places, requiring masks to be worn in public places has become a trigger for many individuals and a divisive political issue. Even in areas where the masks have not been mandated by public health officials, businesses and employers have required them to be worn by staff and shoppers in efforts to be proactive in preventing the spread of the virus.
Conservatives have long celebrated and advocated for the right of a business owner to set the rules for their business and deny service to people. Yet in a strange twist, self-proclaimed conservatives have been among those vocal in calling out businesses that require masks for those entering their businesses.
The challenge when it comes to wearing masks, is that their use is as much about ensuring that you don’t get other people sick as it is about not getting sick yourself. This sort of force altruism is a novel concept for many people who are used to only thinking of themselves.
Unfortunately, the issue of public safety in the pandemic has become a political football. Rather than presenting a united front and implementing the best science available, Americans have allowed politics to balkanize reaction to COVID-19 as it has done with a host of other policy issues.
Public safety should not be a political issue. While individuals may be willing to choose to accept additional risk in their own , this level of risk taking should not be imposed on others…especially in situations where complicating medical conditions are present.
Exercising caution by wearing masks is not a sign of cowardice or defeat, but rather a demonstration of personal responsibility. Keep politics out of public safety and instead focus on the common good.
Perhaps, the words of Valery Legasov, Chief Nuclear Physicist appointed to respond to the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl could be instructive.
“To be a scientist is to be naive. We are so focused on the truth, we fail to consider how few actually want us to find it. But it is always there whether we see it or not, whether we choose to or not. The truth doesn’t care about our needs or wants. It doesn’t care about governments, our ideologies, our religions. It will lie in wait for all time. And that is at last the gift of Chernobyl. Where once I would fear the cost of truth, now I only ask: What is the cost of lies?”
Legasov did not disparage science, but human nature itself. We prefer to live in a state of denial, and COVID-19 is Exhibit A.
Dr. Osy Ekwueme, MD is a physician based in Wisconsin.