OPINION: There are no ifs, ands or buts: Not wearing a mask is pure selfishness

In the absence of a vaccine, masks are considered our best defense against COVID-19. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM
In the absence of a vaccine, masks are considered our best defense against COVID-19. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

For months now, health experts have been telling us that wearing masks, along with social distancing when near one another, is our best protection against COVID-19.

Too many of us didn’t listen.

They warned our elected officials that reopening too soon would bring a resurgence like nobody’s business.

Artists paint masks on their Atlanta murals

We still didn’t listen. We had to get the economy humming again.

Well, it looks like the chickens have come home to roost, and that saying that a hard head makes for, ahem, a soft bottom is so true.

If that sounds celebratory, like an I told you so, it isn’t. Far from it.

I’m just sad, really. Sad to think that I could be cooped up in my home, away from the people I love, the things I love far longer than any of us thought.

Instead of celebrating a return to the office, attending Sunday church services in person, gathering with members of my Sunday school class and choir members, nothing seems certain anymore, well, except more COVID-19 cases. And death.

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There are more than 10 million cases of COVID-19 and a half a million deaths — that means 1 in 20 people who have contracted the virus have died worldwide. Across the country, the number of infections has surpassed 2.6 million cases and more than 127,000 deaths. And in Georgia, where cases are surging again, there were more than 84,000 confirmed cases as of midweek, and more than 2,800 people have died.

Now experts are saying the window to finally get this virus under control is closing — all because so many of you decided to ignore expert advice to wear masks and warnings there could be another surge if you didn’t.

But don’t listen to me, and please don’t listen to Govs. Brian Kemp, Ron DeSantis, and Greg Abbott anymore. Even though they encourage their residents to wear masks, they refuse to outright mandate it in their states.

Listen, please, this time to the experts.

Paula Cannon is a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and an expert in COVID-19 as well as HIV, Ebola and other viruses. CONTRIBUTED BY RICHARD CARRASCO / USC
Paula Cannon is a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology in the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine and an expert in COVID-19 as well as HIV, Ebola and other viruses. CONTRIBUTED BY RICHARD CARRASCO / USC

“In the absence of a vaccine, mask-wearing is the best and only thing we’ve got,” said Paula Cannon, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

Refusing to wear a mask, she said, puts us all on a slippery slope.

But even Cannon concedes it’s not solely your fault. From the beginning, she said, there were too many mixed messages circulating to make an intelligent decision.

That’s no longer the case, though. Now the science is much more clear. Countries that mandated wearing a mask and social distancing measures, that took their time reopening, have not only flattened the curve on infections, but they’re also experiencing a continued decline in both cases and deaths.

It wasn’t just mixed messages about the benefits of wearing a mask, it was also putting emphasis solely on protecting others.

“Wearing a mask absolutely does protect other people, but I’m not that altruistic,” Cannon said.

Apparently we aren’t either.

“Mostly I put on a mask because I like living and it gives me personally a high degree of protection,” Cannon said.

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Of course, there are still those who would argue we have to die of something. Right?

To that, Cannon said, she’d much rather die, oh, say 30 years from now, awake, without feeling pain and with her family present.

Lord knows, I do.

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

But a coronavirus death is not a good death, Cannon told me.

“Your body is brutalized both by the virus and the medical interventions. Being intubated is like an oral rape,” she said. “A pipe is thrust down your throat to feed your lungs. It’s so painful that anybody who is conscious would fight to keep it from happening. You die alone hooked up to a machine. You get to FaceTime with your family if you’re lucky. You experience terrifying hallucinations. So the people who say you gotta die of something. Coronavirus wouldn’t make anybody’s top 100.”

Going out without a mask is like rolling the dice for yourself, everybody you live with and love and every stranger you come in contact with and their family.

It’s not an action that impacts you alone. It’s an action that impacts multiple people.

To be sure, Cannon said, it’s your decision, but please own it.

“I have more respect for people who say I don’t care about putting others at risk,” she said. “My comfort is more important than your life and your health, so go on, wear the T-shirt but don’t tie it in a ribbon talking about your rights. Own your selfishness.”

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Cannon, though, stops short of framing decisions to not wear a mask in strictly political terms.

While such a decision may align with one’s politics, that certainly isn’t always the case, she said. But viewed through a political lens, it’s almost impossible to have a conversation about the benefits of wearing a mask.

“We’ve really lost a sense of the common good in the fight against this virus, presumably because of all the politics that has now been injected into it,” she said. “I see value in getting back to the clarity of telling people masks will protect you as well as protecting everyone else. Not wearing one is a deliberate choice to put both yourself and other people at risk of illness and continuing to damage our economy. Not wearing a mask is a singularly selfish act, and by now we should all recognize that as the case.”

If you’re still at a loss as to what to do, still feel your right to choose trumps everything, Cannon offered a personal checklist she uses that might help you answer why masks are important.

• Because I don’t personally want to get really sick or die, or even come close to risking either of those scenarios.

• Because I don’t want to murder (her word, not mine) a family member or somebody else I come into contact with through my lack of care.

• Because I value and applaud the people who are working in the hospitals and our grocery stores and other essential businesses under extraordinarily difficult circumstances to fight this virus. And my mask-wearing helps to make their jobs easier and safer.

• Because I don’t want to contribute to our economy being devastated by this virus for one second more than it needs to be.

All of the above should work for all of us.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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