It doesn’t exactly feel cool to wear my N95 mask right now. Everywhere I go, Americans seem to have given up on essential and basic public-health strategies proven to reduce the risk of COVID-19—and most visible is the shedding of masks. With the blessing of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Americans no longer wear them in indoor public spaces. And Americans are no longer federally required to wear masks on planes and other forms of public transportation.
But you know what? I don’t care what anyone says. I still wear a high-quality mask when I travel—even though nowadays I’m often the only person doing so on my flight. Yes, it’s annoying. And no, I don’t have to. But for the near future and until the end of the pandemic, I’m not throwing away my masks.
Continuing to wear a mask when you technically don’t have to is a fringe stance. An Axios/Ipsos poll found that at the start of April, less than half of Americans said they ever wear masks outside of the home now, even occasionally. But masking and continuing to take precautions are both essential in order to protect the vulnerable members of our society.
Unfortunately, in a rush to return to normal, our society has once again shown that it lacks the consideration to do what is right. That has profound implications for the most vulnerable in our society, including Black people and other people of color—and, in the case of COVID-19, pregnant people, older and immunocompromised individuals, babies too young to be vaccinated, and others.
As a long-time public health nurse, I’ve witnessed firsthand how little groups that bear the greatest burden for disease factor into people’s decision-making. But according to Black Feminist Thought, in which my decision-making and academic and clinical work are grounded, these groups should be front and center. One of the foundational principles is centering the margins, which means that those who experience the greatest burden should have the most power and say in alleviating it. Our nation’s response to COVID-19 goes against this tenet. We have reduced the pandemic to individual behaviors and choices, all while attempting to manage a collective problem. We have ignored the fact that we are all still in this together. The past two years have shown what happens as a result of that ignorance: COVID-19 infections and deaths disproportionately affected Black people and other people of color. They still do.
At this point, a fundamental shift is required that posits public good, care for others, reduction of community spread, and future pandemic preparedness. We need to use both public-health mitigation strategies—like routinely wearing effective masks—and clinical interventions, like antivirals, hospitalization, and critical care, to minimize community spread and to protect as many people as possible.
I worry that as COVID-19 continues to ebb and flow, and the virus keeps evolving, we will move further away from basic prevention strategies and let our guard down. People are already resigned to the prospect of getting COVID-19 and think nothing can stop it from happening—which doesn’t have to be true if you keep taking measures to protect yourself and others.
I love to see other people choosing to wear high-quality masks on planes and in other indoor public spaces (particularly if proof of vaccination is not mandated in those spaces). It costs so little. It doesn’t hurt; in fact, it helps keep you and others around you healthy. It comes with no risks or side effects.
It’s not required. I just wish there were more of us who chose to do it.
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Contributor: Monica R. McLemore