I have a complicated relationship with fear. Before I learned the truth, I used to think I was brave. In my twenties, I did stand-up comedy. In my 40s, I took up downhill ski racing. In my 50s I took up Aikido. After 30 good years at it, I gave up a successful career as a lawyer to go back to school and start over, and now I write novels for young adults.
Some of these activities require even more bravery
if you do them with my personal high-enthusiasm-to-skill ratio.
But it turns out—sadly—none of that was actually bravery. I have some PTSD from a complicated childhood that I wrote about here, and my PTSD manifests through what’s called a counter-phobic mechanism: I don’t like feeling afraid or vulnerable, so—paradoxically—I move toward scary or dangerous things, in order to not stew in that discomfort:
And I’m drawn to things that involve a practice of mastering fear, because the feeling—fear, vulnerability—seems more important for me to vanquish than the risk of physical injury itself. I’m literally more afraid of being afraid than I am of getting hurt.
I spent most of my life not knowing about this stuff, but in therapy I’ve figured out some of it, and I’m working on some of the rest. In my latest YA novel-in-progress, Just Deal, my teen protagonist has a traumatic background and the same kind of counter-phobic mechanism I do, but (like me at his age) doesn’t know it. That makes the book fun to write, because I have a sense, as he wrestles with his stuff, that in the process I’m also wrestling with some of mine.
So you’d think I’d have just a teensy more sympathy for the people who, even in a deadly pandemic, won’t wear a mask.
The most common way the Covid-19 virus is transmitted between people is by droplets sprayed when we sneeze, cough or—especially, because it’s more common—speak. When we speak, we spray 2600 tiny droplets per second.
Here’s the captured droplet pattern from the “th” sound when you say, “Stay healthy”
Two studies have now found that about 40% of the people infected by Covid-19 are asymptomatic, but still transmit as much virus as those with severe symptoms. Even if you don’t have a fever or dry cough, you may kill people if you go out without a mask.
There’s a simple solution to our current pandemic: If almost everyone wears mask in public, the transmission rate of Covid-19 drops sharply, and each case results in fewer than one new case. When that happens, the epidemic dies out. It already has in places like New Zealand and Iceland.
It could also help some of us branch out from novel-writing to freelance stage coach robbery
And the coronavirus dies out without more extreme—and less-effective—measure that hurt the economy. In Japan, where there’s a tradition of widespread mask wearing, their incidence of Covid-19 is less than 1/50th of ours, per population—even though they haven’t shut Tokyo subways or even closed karaoke bars.
As a whole, the U.S. has done terribly in this pandemic—with 4.4% of the world’s population, we have 26% of the Covid-19 cases, and our infection rates are getting worse, unlike other first world countries.
In U.S. states where masks have been required, however, Covid-19 cases are down 25%. In states where no masks are required, Covid-19 cases are up 84%.
In the hard-hit Northeast, where mask and stay at home measures were introduced—and are being widely followed now—deaths and new infections are down, as they are in Europe. But the U.S. South, with the effort to “reopen” early and only limited mask use, cases are spiking, looking more like Brazil.
The messaging around masks has been confusing—initially, the CDC didn’t recommend masks for the public because there weren’t enough masks for critically-needed health care workers. But the science is clear. Masks prevent transmission. Masks save lives.
There are several reasons, however, many people in the U.S. still don’t wear masks.
First, at least until you get used to wearing them, masks are a mild hassle—new, different, and your glasses fog up. As those of us who write fiction know, change is hard for people—that’s why such terrible things happen to protagonists: It takes a lot to make us change. But we’re there—in the U.S. this pandemic has already killed more than we lost in all of WWI. Wear a mask.
Second, masks remind us there is a deadly pandemic. That’s scary and emotionally difficult. They remind us about danger and mortality, and our culture is especially terrible at thinking about death. But the one thing we should have learned by now from Trump’s White House is that just pretending the pandemic will go away is the worst, deadliest response. Plan to wear a mask instead.
Third, there are the folks who think selfishness and entitlement are virtues enshrined in our Constitution, so they can’t be required to do something for the public good. (“FreeDUMB!”) Yes, there’s a First Amendment right to peaceably assemble, but it doesn’t mean you can stumble into Safeway during a pandemic without a mask, any more than the Second Amendment allows you to fire rifles into crowded apartments. That’s compounded, especially among some insecure men, by the need not to appear “weak” by visibly acknowledging the pandemic. You know it’s bad when even Dick freaking Cheney—in between shooting lawyers in the face—pauses to put on a cowboy hat and a mask for his daughter tweet out with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks:
(In fairness, I was always going to wear a mask around Dick Cheney.
I didn’t want him to recognize me as a former lawyer and shoot me in the face.)
Finally and unfortunately, mask wearing has been politicized by many Republicans. Our alleged President has downplayed the extent of the crisis—and his failure to respond to it—and much of his party followed that lead. Trump doesn’t wear a mask in public even when legally required, and he has encouraged his followers not to wear masks, which he claimed this month were used “to signal disapproval” of him.
Today the Texas GOP announced they’re going ahead with their 6,000-person state convention next month in Covid-19 hotspot Houston and will not require masks. Thursday night, Republicans in the North Carolina GOP legislature revived a statute criminalizing wearing masks in public, effective August 1.
A crisis like this is a test of culture, a test the U.S. may fail. We have a less inclusive, and more employer-dependent, health care system than many other countries, and less of a safety net. Making that worse, this week the Trump administration filed a brief seeking to terminate the Affordable Care Act, under which 20 million of us Americans get their health insurance—including those like me, who no longer have an employer. And we have a cult of selfish entitlement that makes it harder for us all to follow guidelines to help others.
Wearing masks only works if most of us do it.
Some of the people we love are—because of pre-existing conditions—puddles of gasoline in this pandemic, and those of you who don’t wear masks are juggling flaming torches around them.
But people aren’t persuaded by facts, they’re persuaded by stories, so I’ll tell you one. There’s an E.R. doc, Tanya, the first member of her family to go to college, let alone medical school. She has $220,000 of student debt her parents have personally guaranteed, although without her income, they’ll never be able to pay it.
If you go without a mask, the guy you infect will end up in Tanya’s hospital, and if she has to do an emergency intubation to keep him alive, she will.
And when she dies of Covid-19 three weeks later, after her parents bury her, they’ll have to pay that $220,000 back.
Because this is America.
Wear a mask, please.
I get that we’re afraid, that we’re uncomfortable, but we have to do better. For each other. The world needs us to behave as grownups, regardless of our stuff. The world needs us to behave as decent humans.
Wear a mask.
Unless you do, I’m afraid a lot of us won’t make it.
Heroes wear masks.
Be a hero. Wear a mask.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” His current novel is about two funny brothers who have to team up with their friend Claire to save the world. It has all the usual Gloster novel ingredients: Death, humor, the question of whether it’s possible to save someone, a love interest to root for, dysfunctional parenting, and a slightly off-kilter sensibility. Also a mergers and acquisitions lawyer dad who is missing 74 percent of his soul. You know: stuff happens.
When Dean is not studying Aikido or downhill ski racing--and, let's face it, there's not as much of that going on right now--he’s on Twitter: @deangloster