I'll Protect Myself; You Do Whatever
Except… That doesn’t work.
I started writing this post last year in February. I was recovering from a hysterectomy during one of the bigger surges of COVID in the U.S. The surge made sense: it started picking up steam right after the holidays when everyone went home to marvel in what it was like to have a “normal life” again. I’d had dodged COVID at a 30-person superspreader during Thanksgiving, which later informed my decision to forego family gatherings all together.
Ahead of my surgery, I started wearing an N95 in the house I lived in with seven other people. No one else masked; I felt bad asking them to. As it was, it was a fight to ask people to avoid bars or parties, when everyone wanted to celebrate because things were coming back to life.
So we settled on the only rule: if you wanted to see me unmasked you had to test first. For a month, I lived in my room. I saw basically no one. I’ve had a lot of depressing experiences in my life, but that definitely was a contender for the top.
Going into surgery, I did not get COVID. After surgery, I was exposed almost immediately by a roommate who had taken the bus and then went to a conference at an airport. All unmasked, of course.
Despite the fact that everywhere except the bathroom, I was wearing my N95. Everywhere. Even while on drugs. Even with pain that made it hard to breathe. I was wearing a mask.
It bears repeating that no one else did, save for one or two people who visited from outside of my house.
When I exploded, in tears and livid as neurological symptoms set in (as they did the last time I had COVID), one of my roommates defended the one who’d gone unmasked to these high-risk places with…
“But how could he have known?”
Indeed, I had felt bad asking for people to mask around me because who am I to ask people to remember the times we all thought we were going to die? Who am I to remind people that we still have so much unproccessed trauma from the entire almost half-decade of living with this often-dangerous disease?
But in that moment, with tremors from the panic attacks COVID Round 2 had left me with, I wanted to scream.
“Why is it up to me, an immunocompromised person, to defend myself?”
My roommates didn’t want me to die, but the larger theme of society is that people like me - we are a burden to the economy, so let’s best get them killed off so we can move on like nothing’s happened.
I hate Trump as much as the next person and wish him to drop dead, but he was the only one that was able to admit this out loud to everyone during one of his many childish rants.
Except maybe the government in Sweden joined him, which tried to go the “herd immunity” route early on in the pandemic.
We, as western civilization, cannot be reminded that we are not gods. That nature is what makes us mortal, that this disease is one of many coming our way because we denied that mortality to seek domination.
After I wrote the piece in my journal while my body went through cells of panic attacks - which have now become a permanent concern in my life if I so much as stray from a certain state - I felt guilty.
Again, the “who am I to require this” or “who am I to make people feel guilty or bad about their choices”.
Fast forward to now, when the U.S. is facing the second largest wave of the entire pandemic, I’ve started seeing messages from people in local chats about exactly this.
People who are immunocompromised that are getting dirty looks in stores or at work because wearing a mask is now associated with being ill. One of my friends, who works in childcare, literally stood in front of a coworker who told a baby she was holding:
“I know that person is wearing a mask. Very very scary isn’t it? We don’t know why she’s wearing a mask. She must be very sick.”
(Yes, Karen, having a fucking heart condition that made her go to the ER for COVID is very scary. Scarier than the mask she’s wearing to protect herself from that same fate.)
As for myself, I only allow people to come over and see me if they’ve (1) got no cold symptoms and (2) tested negative for COVID. Since (2) isn’t enough anymore. The disease has progressed to a point where you can be symptomatic before you test positive.
Even then, I’ve had an asymptomatic person test negative in my kitchen and call me in a panic the next afternoon to say they got hit suddenly with symptoms that progressed to a positive COVID test less than 24 hours after we’d had dinner.
I’m currently recovering from top surgery, and the lessons I learned from getting my hysterectomy informed how I was to behave during these six weeks of recovery:
Almost complete isolation from society.
My roommate went on a month-long trip, so I’ve been living alone in a rural area, relying on friends who care enough to isolate themselves so they can come and help me recover.
How messed up is that?
That they need to pull themselves out of a “normal” society they’ve re-entered in the last year, to take care of their immunocompromised friend. It’s also proven to me who truly is a friend, because even despite the document I sent to everyone who wanted to care for me, some people still were surprised when I asked if they tested before coming. Some didn’t even have quality masks to put on when I asked them to mask up.
My story here is far from uncommon. There was a “masks required” event in town and one of the edge tenders said it was a full-time job to remind people to wear a mask. At an event with big signs that asked you to mask, and that advertised itself as a masks required event. Some people didn’t have masks and had to go to the first aid tent to grab them.
However, this is not why I was motivated to have this post see the light this time around. It wasn’t the anger and the sadness of being with a small, but growing group of people who’ve become disabled by this disease, who don’t want COVID again because they’re afraid of what will happen.
It’s because I want to give a warning.
Me masking and still getting COVID while wearing an N95 is not an isolated incident, especially with newer and more contagious strains. A friend who went to a concert masked with a KN95, and was the only one wearing protection, tested positive for COVID almost immediately after.
Masking is at its best if everyone is committed to keeping others protected, in addition to themselves. Those wearing masks are undoubtedly more protected than not wearing a mask, but they’re only fully effective if everyone is committed to the health of their community.
Get into a situation where there’s little ventilation (like my previous housing situation) or there’s a lot of people during a high-risk time (like going to a concert) - and add the fact you’re the only one masking up? You’re still likely to get it. Just less likely. Either way, it still sucks and the ones trying to protect themselves and those around them are left holding the bag.
We live in such an individualized society here in the U.S. People take it to mean that they can make their own choices and there aren’t consequences for those choices.
The footnote to that is when you make a choice, you may not be affected by it, but others will bear those consequences.
This footnote is clear to anyone who thinks critically. The problem is that most of us don’t think critically, so live in a blissful state of non-awareness. And this is by design: if we don’t think critically, then questions aren’t asked. As a result, we don’t realize that we aren’t in a bubble that protects us from the outcomes of our actions until those outcomes smack us in the face.
It’s exactly this mentality that has caused COVID to be endemic. We will never get rid of the disease. People are going to continue to get it, become permanently disabled by it, going to die from it.
The general population in the U.S. may have forgotten that we lost more than a million souls to this disease in our country alone. So much so, that I don’t think they realize that they could be steps from becoming one of them the longer they ignore the reality that the pandemic is still going.
It feels very Masque of the Red Death, except no one’s partying, everyone is burnt out, and the food isn’t particularly good.