I’ve never thought of myself as someone who needed special consideration. Not even when I ended up spending a year on crutches or a walking in a stiff full-length plaster leg cast following a nasty ski accident at 19, or when ai learned in my 40s after a stubborn case of viral pneumonia that I had a auto-immune condition called sarcoidosis that made my lungs get scarred if I got lung infections.
I just went about my life doing what I always did, hitch-hiking with my bum leg and learning to drive a semi-trailer truck while my leg was still recovering from a year in a cast, and ignoring risks to my lungs when I knew they were prone to scarring.
But the Covid pandemic has changed all that. My pulmonologist, who keeps tabs on my pulmonary sarcoidosis, warned me at the start of the outbreak in early 2020 that I needed to be careful not to contract Covid as my sarcoids, in remission since a flareup in 2017 that had required treatment with three months on steroids, could kill me.
Fortunately for me, the whole country, except for in some midwestern and southern states filled with Trump-addled Covid (and science) deniers, was being cautious about catching or spreading Covid 19.
Especially after the development of Covid vaccines, and the ready availability of N-95 masks, I was able to go about my life pretty much like everyone else, My wife and I just stopped going to restaurants or even buying takeout, washed our groceries before using them, and stopped seeing friends except outdoors.
But as the pandemic wore on , I’ve watched a disturbing shift in American society. From an initial period of “We’re all in this together” solidarity about masking, testing when in contact with someone who gets Covid, and self-quarantining if sick to protect others, we’ve moved to becoming a two-tiered society — one group composed of mostly younger adults who (rightly or not) feel less vulnerable to infection, and people of all ages who think if they get Covid it will be ‘just like another cold,” and who want to “get on with their lives,” and another group composed of those who are, like me: older (I’m 74) , or who have weakened immune systems of one kind or another (me again).
From President Biden to the Center for Disease Control and the US Department of Health all are telling people (for political, not scientific reasons) that they can go back to living normal lives, going to parties, theaters, sports events and classrooms, eating at restaurants, as long as they “are willing to risk picking up a Covid infection.”
These feckless so-called leaders and experts are calling Covid precautions a personal choice, while telling the 70-80 million of us who are vulnerable — the elderly or the ilmmuno-compromised — that we just have to protect ourselves from exposure as best we can.
These instructions from health authorities and political leaders are recklessly creating a callous society based on selfishness. They’re telling kids and middle-aged adults that it’s okay to put grandparents and parents at risk, telling workers it’s okay to put co-workers and customers at risk, and telling shoppers and restaurant patrons it’s okay to put service workers at risk. They don’t usually put it that bluntly, but it’s the real message they are sending.
My wife and I took a trans-Atlantic flight to the UK last October to see a premiere screening of my film “A Compassionate Spy,” at a festival in Cambridge. We wore our N-95 masks for the entire flight, on the advice of my pulmonologist, also directing the overhead air vents on towards us full blast in hopes of keeping germs at bay with the higher air pressure around our seats. We noticed that nobody on the entire Airbus plane was wearing a mask — not even a woman seated across the aisle from us who spent the whole flight hacking away with a bad cough. We didn’t get Covid or any other infection (well-fitting N-95 masks work, whatever the anti-maskers tell you!), but it was a nerve-wracking journey.
To me, the people who are ignoring masking, testing and quarantining when feeling sick or not testing when they get cold symptoms because they’re sick of putting swabs up their nose, are no different from drivers who honk their horns and drive around disabled persons who cross the street too slowly to make it across during the “Walk” signal. It’s just selfishness.
The US has never been a particularly socially conscious society. We celebrate ourselves as being ‘rugged individuals” who don’t need help from government programs. It has never been true of course. Those of us who have succeeded in life to one degree or another in this country have had the benefit of publicly funded schools, government backed student loans, publicly funded infrastructure, employee funded or partially subsidized health insurance, organized trade unions that have raised wages and improved benefits for everyone, semi-socialist government-run health programs like Medicaid for the poor and Medicare for the elderly or disabled, and so on. But we flatter ourselves by imagining we are independent actors nonetheless.
It’s a pernicious myth. We are dependent on others, and others are dependent upon us.
In the case of infectious diseases, whether Covid-19, flu or still-not-eradicated diseases like whooping cough, measles, mumps and even polio that we are only protected from if we all get vaccinated. It’s not just for our own good but for the good of others, In other societies I have lived and worked in, like China and Taiwan and other Asian countries, during flu season or when a disease like SARS is running rampant, wearing masks is the norm. Nobody complains or ignores masking. Everyone understands it is a social obligation to protect oneself and others.
My image of a typical American, sadly, is the young man I passed while running an errand in Home Depot. I was walking towards the plumbing aisle, mask in place, and he was heading towards me. Noticing that he was wearing a simple (and virtually useless) cloth mask placed under his nose so it just covered his mouth, I said as he approached, “Hey dude, you’re not wearing your mask right. Pull it over your nose.”
Continuing to walk by me he replied, “F“*** you!”
“You just did,” I remarked, causing him to spin around and look at me angrily as if I might have insulted him. Unable to figure out if I just did or not, he continued on his self-centered, potentially infectious way.
This cocky kid and the whole country really needs a change of attitude. As the climate crisis grows increasingly more dangerous, and pandemics increasingly more common, we’re going to need to come together as a people. Our choice is to work for our common good or to each perish alone.