I’ve been a bit puzzled about all the debate and outrage over wearing masks. I know some of it is weirdly ideological, but some of it seems to be a misunderstanding of why we have been asked to wear masks in the first place.
The objection is often phrased as a personal right: “If I choose not to wear a mask, it’s my own darn business whether I want to take that risk.” It reminds me of the debate about motorcycle helmet laws. “If I want to go roaring down the freeway on two wheels and have the wind blowing in my hair, it’s my own darn business.”
When it comes to wearing helmets, there is a kind of logic to such a position, if one does not think of the first responders who have to clean up the mess. (I remember my motorcycle accident when the nurse in the emergency room asked me if I knew what they call motorcycle accident victims? “Donors,” she answered her own question, with nary a smirk.)
But asking someone to wear a mask to prevent the spread of a virus is more akin to asking someone not to leave a loaded gun on the coffee table. The idea is not that you might get hurt, but that someone else might because of your carelessness.
We wear masks to protect others because the vast majority of us don’t know from day to day if we might be the contagious ones. It reflects our concern for the common good and our fellow men and women, and our hope that they have a similar concern for us.
This small sacrifice of wearing a mask in public settings is also a sign that we are all in this together, not just the first responders and the ER docs, the nurses and the morticians. That little strip of cloth is a flag of solidarity.
At times, it doesn’t feel like we are all in this crisis together. We are approaching 2 million sick and 100,000 people dead who were alive three months ago, yet the stats are often treated like a box score. After 9/11, there was a rush of sympathy for New York. This time, there was a rush of discussion about how fast to open up, and other hot spots are getting far less national attention.
We really aren’t asked to sacrifice much these days for greater goods. We have historically long wars, but it never really touches us unless we have family serving. We run up mountains of debt, but don’t feel it should fall on us to pay it back.
The pandemic has exposed lots of social weaknesses, like the inequalities of our health care system and our educational system and even our access to the internet. Those who are weakest are the most vulnerable once again: Unable to afford not to go to work when the pandemic is in full flower. Unable to afford to stay home when they are called back to work while the risk is still great.
In thinking about the common good, we place ourselves firmly within the moral and social teachings of the church, which in turn goes back to what Jesus taught: “Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Mt 7:12).
I don’t know what the lasting effects of this pandemic will be: Whether we will rush backward to our old normal as quickly as possible, or whether we will learn new lessons from these few months of sacrifice. I for one am hoping that in our isolation, we’ve learned something about fellowship.
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Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.