Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, a lot of unofficial Covid-related messaging has circulated, some of it grotesquely harmful, some of it good, some of it not terrible. One message I kept seeing, though a lot less now, is that “masking does more to protect those around you than it protects your own self”: an appeal towards our better instincts of fellow love and care for each other.
When I’m sitting in the métro or in my dentists’ waiting room, yet again the only person wearing a mask in an indoor setting, that’s the message I keep thinking about. Don’t do it for yourself, do it for others.
After a dance practice in the studio one morning, as I was getting changed in the hallway and getting ready to run to work, a fellow student looked at me, her voice dripping with resentment: “why are you still wearing a mask?” Despite being — for months now — the only person in my ballet classes who wears a mask, the question’s tone still managed to throw me for a loop. My answer, a shocked and short “à cause de la covid?” did not impress. I will not sport with anyone’s intelligence by relaying the rest of what she told me, it's not worth dwelling upon.
Since that incident a few weeks ago, I’ve been arguing with myself whether or not I want to write something about why I’m still masking indoors, and sometimes even outdoors. While I know that it was not asked in good faith, what if I pretended her question to me was asked with honest curiosity? How would I answer?
So here are a few of my reasons for masking:
- I am in more than four different social and medical at-risk categories for the worst possible outcomes of catching Covid-19, and then developing long Covid. I’ve also had two extremely disruptive previous illnesses in my life. The first caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and the second by the shingles virus. The first lasted two years, which was a nightmare. In the case of shingles, it was the cause of some extremely difficult-to-treat chronic pain that still affects me today. So, you know, I’m good on the viruses front, thanks.
- Masks are not perfect, especially the flimsy little surgical masks that for some reason no regulating bodies in my jurisdiction wants to standardize or subject to some quality control. But, when worn properly over both the nose and mouth, even those flimsy little masks are an important harm reducing measure. If there’s anything we can use more of right now, it is harm reduction.
- Some of my friends who don’t mask everywhere anymore say that the pandemic so far has truly taught them the personal and social importance of staying home when they are sick. Structurally, however, we live in an economy that explicitly and implicitly discourages sick people from staying home until they or their children are well and symptom-free. So even though I know many people are trying to be vigilant while unmasked, many people cannot be. Also: some people might not realize they are sick, for all sorts of very good reasons. The “is it allergies or is it covid” struggle of the past spring is one example.
- This is probably my least “optimistic” point, for which I apologize in advance. I’ve been in several major Montréal hospitals a lot this year. I have seen first hand the effect that staff shortages have on operating and recovery rooms. With ERs shut down or at 200% capacity, a grave shortage of ambulances and front-line health workers, I really don’t think it’s hyperbole anymore to say that the Québec medical system has collapsed. Steering clear of Covid, or monkeypox, or — who knows, given our collective luck, the next big one could be antibiotic-resistant diphtheria according to the University of Cambridge — is also about avoiding interacting with the medical system in general.
- The Québec government seems to believe that if it's not a “complete lockdown + curfew” or a “free-for-all,” its hands are tied. Tant bien que mal, whenever I continue to wear a mask, I’m trying to model the behaviour of the social norms of the caring, loving community I want to live in.
Very briefly, here are some facts obtained from the Institut national de santé publique du Québec (INSPQ).
Comparing three days from the middle of July, at a glance:
- On July 12 2020 - 686 people hospitalized, 102 in ICU for Covid
- On July 12 2021 - 152 people hospitalized, 58 in ICU for Covid
- On July 12 2022 - 1724 people hospitalized, 43 in ICU for Covid
Also according to the INSPQ, there are 19 387 new confirmed Covid cases in Québec so far in July, but the INSPQ considers this to be a (possibly significantly) lower amount than what is circulating in the population.
When I hear my friends saying: “No one is masking, so wearing a mask won't protect me.” or “I caught Covid a bunch of times and it wasn’t a big deal.” or even “I think each variant is becoming less dangerous, at least that’s what I think based on how sick people I know have been.” — I hear you. I really, really do. But we are looking at the same confirmed and anecdotal facts from radically different vantage points. I’ll be continuing to wear a mask as much as possible in indoor settings, and in any outdoors, crowded ones. Am I worried about my immune system weakening due to lack of exposure to various bugs? Are masks uncomfortable, especially during the coolest summer for the rest of our lives? Do they impede my ability to communicate effectively when I'm tired? Am I worried about heavy breathing during athletic activity (including long walks and commuting) while wearing a mask? Yes to all of this. But until our healthcare system is no longer collapsing in on itself, this doesn't feel like a choice. And, while I’m wearing a mask to protect myself, I’m also doing it to try and model the kind of world I want to live in. I want more and more to reframe wearing a mask in crowded public spaces and indoors as a kind of radical act of solidarity, of love, and of hope. Hope for a world where we try our best to take care of each other, even when it's hard and uncertain.
I hope my answer to "why are you still wearing a mask?" is clear. I really appreciate all who read this far.
Take care, and stay safe out there.
PS: Before I sign off, I also want to share a link to hannah harris-sutro's beautifully-stated "Towards A Collective Care Protocol for Queer Events in Pandemic Times", a shareable Instagram deck describing what queer events that minimize health risk could look like in these pandemic times: https://www.instagram.com/p/CdO76W8pb4N/