On Independence Day: Civil Liberty and the Wearing of Masks

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July 4, 2020

So here we are, facing another big wave of Coronavirus in 36 states, with Texas and Florida leading the pack, having the highest case reports.  Am I shocked?  Not unless I have been away on another planet and did not get to follow the news for a month or so, about how this surge will happen because many states had reopened without adequate public health preparation and guidelines.  All these states’ leaders were rushing “to save the economy.”  When there’s no life, however, there’s no economy. 

When my family went to Japan two summers ago, we experienced many civil traditions that do not exist in other countries.  Everywhere we visited, the ground was without trash.  Most public places in Japan do not have trashcans because people bring their trash home.  If we go into a store to drop off our trash, our tour guide advised, we should buy something, because it is considered rude to discard our trash without an act of “giving back.”  Japanese people are known to be incredibly responsible to each other.  Their society comes before their conveniency.  They understand the concept of cooperation for the common good.

In public places, we saw many Japanese wearing masks. They looked comfortable standing on metros and train stations in cloth or surgical masks.  When asked about this habit, our tour guide explained how, if we don’t feel well or have symptoms of a cold, we should wear mask in public to prevent passing our infection to others.

I wonder if the Japanese find it fascinating that there’s even a war about wearing masks in the United States during a pandemic?  A public health issue somehow has turned into a political conflict. I was baffled watching the news last week that showed two women in Miami screaming into a microphone, protesting about wearing masks.  One of them, a young woman, called mask wearers “crazy.’  The other, with perfect make up and lipstick, bitterly declared that “those communists” cannot coerce her into wearing masks.  She did not want to lose her “civil liberty,” a big word to throw around nowadays, in the middle of a pandemic that has taken already more than 129,000 lives in the United States even after half of the country was locked down for three months.

Is my civil liberty more important than your life?  Should we be willing to live with a little inconvenience, like putting a piece of cloth on our face in public, so that more of us will stay alive to see the fireworks on Independence Day next year? As a society, how far can we advance in public health if we cannot endure a few hours or minutes, covering our face for the sake of others’, as experienced public health experts like Drs Anthony Fauci and Debra Birx are urging us to do so? The CDC has a very helpful guidance on wearing cloth masks, which was updated just a few days ago.  These public servants have tried their best to protect us.  We need to do our easy part.

Of course, life is more functional when we live with common sense.  Nobody is expecting us to wear a mask while running outdoors on an empty neighborhood street, driving in our cars, working in our vegetable garden.  I don’t think anybody would fault us for not pulling our mask up when we are 20 feet away from each other.  If our physicians and other front line workers in the COVID-19 pandemic can wear face shields, goggles, N-95 masks, and surgical gowns all day, why can’t we try to ease their job burden by wearing a cloth or surgical mask in public for a brief time?

Nowadays, my 97 year-old father wears a K-95 mask when grocery shopping, and a cloth mask when walking in the park next to his apartment.  There is no guarantee that these masks will protect him completely from COVID-19.  He might still end up in the ER someday with COVID-19, along side with those who have refused to wear masks in public.  Would the ICU physicians grant him the last ventilator, or would it go to a younger patient, even when this patient had refused to wear a mask?  Who would be trampling on whose civil liberty, the liberty to live our healthy life while not causing harm to others?

By all means, take off your mask whenever you are alone or in your own environment, but put one on while in my presence.  I would put my mask on for you, in case I am one of the numerous silent carriers, so that you can stay alive to see the firework or join your family for a picnic next year on July 4th.  After all, if our whole country had gone on lockdown 4 months ago, and everyone had worn masks in public, maybe we would have been comfortable on a beach somewhere and without masks, watching the usual fun July 4th fireworks.   Instead, because of this lack of cooperation, lack of appreciation for the virus itself, and lack of respect for public health experts, we are witnessing a bitter war between the mask wearers and those who are screaming out for their “civil liberty.”  In a deadly viral crisis, it is important to differentiate civil liberty from selfishness and ignorance.  It is vital to realize that science is real.  

Have a healthy July 4th, and do not leave your house without a mask.