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Civic Responsibility


The week my father died, I cleaned the barn. Work has always been my refuge in times of sorrow and as dad drifted peacefully toward his end, I sifted through generations of family possessions. In an old steamer trunk I found a packet of letters that went back to his beginnings, all written to his mother when he was a freshman in college. As he died I read, uncovering the unblemished idealism of his youth.

It was his first time away from his family and he was exuberant. There is a rush to his words as he recounted his experiences and “swell” is the most commonly used adjective to describe life. What impressed me was his joyous embrace of his role in his new society, how he welcomed the concept of helping others—whether it was helping townspeople to beat out a prairie fire or joining a civic-minded college organization. The eternal Boy Scout—he wanted a career as a Scout leader—he was thoroughly indoctrinated in the belief in public service.

He never achieved that career goal—a mere World War and the subsequent task of raising four children got in the way. But for the rest of his life he threw himself into the life of his community, serving church, fire department and municipality. When he died the local newspaper ran an editorial lamenting the death of “Mr. Volunteer,” and a woman I met on the street mourned the loss of “the last of the old-time gentlemen.”

My dad, who did not lack in his own firmly held convictions, would not understand the world we live in today. He would be appalled at the lack of civility that permeates society and would be repelled by the “me first” attitude of our citizens. Images of mothers and fathers—presumably the people most interested in preserving the health of their children—violently assaulting school boards members as they try to establish safety measures to protect staff and students would leave him nonplussed.

In New Hartford a school board member recently pushed hard to unmask children, backed by a group of equally passionate parents. He stated that teachers and administrators in the schools were “reprehensible” for wanting “our children to protect them.”

True, masks—unless they have filters like an N95 mask—do not protect the wearer but rather other people in the room. The protection is cumulative and I believe the proof is in the pudding. Before the vaccine became available, states where Covid infection rates were lowest were those where masks were nearly universally worn. The same comparison holds true for areas that vaccinate over those that reject the vaccine.

At the same time, there was a corollary to flu infection rates. In 2020-21, when masks were in place, there were 646 deaths nationwide attributed to flu, only one of which was in a person younger than 18. But in the 2019-20, there were 22,000 adult flu deaths and 195 pediatric deaths.

What, then, is there to argue about? Do I like to wear masks—emphatically no. In summer they are cloying, my glasses fog up in air-conditioned stores and they make it difficult to read people’s expressions and to distinctly hear their words. But these are minimal inconveniences and I consider it my civic duty to try to protect others and to help promote the economic and social wellbeing of this country by suppressing the pandemic.

I am depressed by the seemingly callous calculations of state and national leaders who play on the emotions of a frightened and frustrated populace, sometimes hypocritically protecting themselves from the virus even as they whip up a “wild West” attitude of defiance among their constituents. An illness is apolitical. It is not a mark of virility or independence to ignore medical advice.

Between 1348 and the mid-1600s, the Black Death visited Europe repeatedly, killing an estimated 25 million people in its first visitation, about a third of the entire population. With no effective medication and no real understanding of its transmission (long thought to have been transmitted by fleas it is increasingly being seen as being airborne), response to it was nevertheless remarkably consistent: social distancing, quarantine and masks all came into play.

Similar measures were employed during the Manchurian plague of 1910, when Asian doctors donned masks and preserved their lives while a French doctor working with them dismissed the idea and promptly died. Masks were again employed during the flu pandemic of 1918, with some cities imposing fines for the maskless. Thus masks have a 700-year history of use in suppressing contagion.

Inconvenience, heat rash and muffled speech are not sufficient excuses for us to be cavalier about the rights of others to live. There is no constitutional right to infect other people. My dad, an archetypal American citizen, would not understand such selfishness.