OP-ED: We Can’t All be Heroes, But We Can All Wear Masks
February 22, 2021, 3:18 PM HST
* Updated February 22, 9:21 PM
The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the US has given rise to many of our country’s formerly unsung heroes. That their heroism was shrouded in the course of every day life begs a question that itself is begging to be addressed: What criteria actually makes someone heroic?
Heroism can be defined by the selflessness of a parent, the bravery of a solider, the dedication of a police officer to uphold the law — but these are singular examples. Distinguishing between what renders ONE INDIVIDUAL a hero and what ties ALL HEROES together requires a broader definition. That definition, I believe, is a person with the capacity to continuously rise above the human condition.
I was scrolling through social media a couple of weeks ago and came across the story of a man, a nurse, who has spent most of the last year living in a long-term care home. He has chosen to essentially forfeit his life outside of work for more than a calendar year so as to both care for his patients and protect them simultaneously. These are sometimes different things amid the grip of a pandemic, when a caring hand can be the kiss of death if it has been careless elsewhere for even a moment.
Heroism is an abstract concept when you aren’t heroic yourself. That is, at least, until an example of it floating around somewhere suddenly crashes into you and a lightbulb flashes on. I’m a bit ashamed to say it, especially because a registered nurse is a member of my immediate family, but scrolling past this man’s face and that story’s headline served as my flashbulb moment.
This nurse’s lack of selfishness confounded me. How many of us would actually offer such a profound and protracted sacrifice for the sake of other people, let alone those who aren’t close friends or family?
Selfishness is a core element of the human condition. It is a phenomenon impervious even to evolution. Perhaps this is because as our species transitioned from beast into an intellectually elevated form of barbarian, selfishness was a requirement of survival. Living in what Bob Dylan once called “a world of steel-eyed death and men who are fighting to be warm,” considering the well-being of our counterparts (aka opponents) would be the antithesis of practicality. And hardly economical.
Even now, on the cutting edge of human evolution, who doesn’t take more than he or she gives? How many of us are willing to give anything at all?
That is why this nurse’s unselfishness, his ability to rise above our species’ flawed and elemental nature, slammed into me with such force that it threw me from the comfort of my bed and inspired the only op-ed I have authored in more than 16 months as News Director at Big Island Now.
His sacrifice, and the sacrifices of so many people like him, stands in stark contrast to the way much of the world continues to live — even during pandemic times. These people don’t just pause their own lives for months or years they’ll never to get back, they risk their own lives to offer aloha to our most vulnerable populations. They choose to make these sacrifices when so many others can not or will not be bothered to follow the simplest of virus protocols, like wearing a face covering while amidst the public.
Let’s not get mired in the constitutionality of mask mandates. I’ll say only that the declaration of emergency proclamations by county mayors and state governors afford those leaders legal leeway to take action in defense of public health. Legislators in Hawai‘i and other states are considering whether those emergency powers should be limited and checked — an appropriate course of action when the population has lived under emergency declarations for going on an entire year.
Specifics of more controversial and debatable restrictions aside, the larger point is that we as human beings should not require laws or emergency declarations to compel our compliance with a minor directive like wearing a mask in public, which literally helps protect everyone living in the world.
How much protection does it offer? This is another question that distracts from the overarching point. The answer will vary depending on who you ask, but the most credentialed doctors and scientists in this country and across the world will tell you that wearing a mask offers at least some protection. It makes life in a pandemic somewhat safer. That is a fact.
It doesn’t matter if wearing a mask makes the community 1% safer or 99% safer. If doing so has ANY POSITIVE IMPACT AT ALL, then isn’t it worth whatever minor inconvenience we suffer? These are the questions everyone ought to be asking, along with “How can I help?” and “Why does my effort matter?”
In my position as an editor and reporter, I have been approached multiple times by members of the Big Island community who are avidly anti-mask and typically anti-any coronavirus measures or restrictions at all. They ask me why I don’t report “their side,” or send someone to do so. The broadest answer I can give is that I believe a responsible news outlet ought to stand behind expert science as truth — or in the case of emerging medical science, the truth as we are best capable of understanding it at any particular moment in time. I also believe it is damaging and unethical to try and minimize a crisis. A responsible news outlet will not minimize nor sensationalize, it will report fact.
The facts are that the first COVID-related death in this country was identified in early February of 2020. Just over one year later, more than half a million people in the United States have died as a result of complications from the coronavirus.
Influenza was responsible for approximately 34,000 deaths nationwide in 2018-19, the most recent year for which data was available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The flu is no joke, but it’s also no COVID-19 — a completely novel virus to which our immune systems have zero biological programming to draw on as a defense.
An argument often made by those who advocate for restrictions to disappear before it is in the interest of the public health to abolish them is that there is a high survival rate of those who become infected with the coronavirus. The figure of a “99%” survival rate is often bandied about, though the actual universal mortality rate of the virus has yet to be confirmed.
However, let us assume for the sake of argument and example that only 1 in 100 people who catch the virus perish from it. Foregoing virus restrictions of all types in favor of a strategy that brings about herd immunity through mass infection would result in the death of approximately 3.3 million Americans.
Maybe, in the abstract and using a figure like a 1% mortality rate, people find themselves at a point where they can live with that death toll. Of course, most of those opinions would inevitably change if the 1 in 100 who dies is a wife, a father, a sister, or a son of said opinion holder — let alone the opinionated him or herself.
It is easier to trivialize death when it is someone else doing the dying — some other nameless, faceless family paying the price.
Another frequently peddled argument against COVID-19 restrictions is that other conditions are more skilled and prolific killers: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and so on. This is, of course, correct. But you can’t get heart disease from a visit to the post office, and you won’t come down with cancer after a trip to the grocery store.
That argument frequently evolves into one that goes something like: “It isn’t usually COVID-19 that ACTUALLY kills people. The virus just exacerbates an underlying cause.”
In many cases, this is also true. However, the argument falls apart once you stumble upon another obvious truth: If a person who died after contracting COVID had never caught the virus, they would not have died when they did.
Whether direct or indirect, the presence of the coronavirus is the only new variable in such a victim’s existential equation. The introduction of that variable changed the sum total of their lives, subtracting time. Whether a person loses one day, one month, or one year, what is the difference? Who are any of us to tell the victims of the virus and those who mourn them what value to put on the time that defines the end of their lives?
When you find yourself upon your deathbed — as all of us eventually will — and you feel your time nearing, what value do you suppose you would place on one more day, one more month, one more year as you lay in the grip of that lonely moment of mortal realization?
What value judgment might you make if that final day was your mother’s, or that final month was your grandfather’s, or that final year belonged to your son? Would that time, their lives, be worthy of a sacrifice that boils down to a minor inconvenience? Would it be worthy of wearing a mask? Would it be worthy of the man in the next room or the woman down the hall wearing them, even if they will never know you or your pain?
It is not my intent to preach. I have not always taken the pandemic as seriously as I should have. I was flippant in the beginning, I was annoyed during the middle, and I am exasperated as we push on toward some sort of end. I have congregated when I shouldn’t have. I have continued to maintain a modicum of a social life, limiting the size of my circle, but not exclusively to the extent recommended. This is a trying time, and no one is perfect. But the key word in that sentence isn’t “perfect,” it’s “trying.” Are you TRYING?
In the interest of fairness, here’s another question worth asking: At what point does the economic damage caused by global shutdowns increase poverty and misery to such an extent that the loss of physical life through crime, abuse, suicide and a litany of other problems cumulatively becomes worse than the pandemic itself? It is a question that has always been worth considering. The answer is a mystery and would take a team of health professionals, economic gurus, and social science experts much smarter than I working in concert for months or years to determine. But I don’t believe we’re there yet. Restrictions save lives. Mask wearing is one of those restrictions. And your life, or the life of someone you love, might be the life that is saved.
The vaccine has arrived. There is light at the end of this tunnel. In the meantime, we need to hold on. We don’t need to sacrifice a year of our lives, risking them in the process, like the heroes in hospitals and nursing homes across the world. We can be heroic in our own way, by simply CARING about one another just a little bit. We can be heroic by rising above the human condition in this one miniscule fashion, putting the wellbeing of our counterparts above the convenience of self, no matter how difficult or unnatural such decisions prove to be.
The editorial above is attributed to Big Island Now and Kauai Now News Editor Max Dible. It does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Pacific Media Group or associated companies.