Dr. Anthony Fauci made the now-famous statement, “Wear a mask,” during a 60-Minutes interview at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The verbal missive has been requoted countless times by government officials and healthcare leaders during the past year. The Yale Law School library has listed this statement as one of the top 10 quotations that define the year 2020.
The effectiveness of wearing a mask in reducing the spread of the virus is settled science. Laboratory studies using high-speed film to track respiratory droplets produced with everyday speech have demonstrated how masks block nearly all these droplets. Airborne transmission of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is through these respiratory aerosols. Furthermore, epidemiologic studies tracking COVID-19 growth rates clearly demonstrate a slow-down of viral spread when states institute mask mandates. Despite the clear evidence that masks are perhaps our most straightforward and effective method of slowing the spread of COVID-19, refusal to wear a mask has become a warped and horrifying expression of personal freedom and a symbol of political affiliation for some.
To be clear, I am a huge proponent of personal freedom. Like most Americans, I do not respond well to any person, employer, or government telling me how to think, believe, or act in my personal pursuit of happiness. I am also not so naïve to believe that my personal freedom can be manifested without some limits. Our Constitution protects against my individual expression of freedom impinging on my neighbors’ personal liberty through the creation of laws by elected representatives.
Perhaps the most recent example of the consequences of unfettered individual freedom of expression in this country was the domestic terror attack on the nation’s Capital Building on Jan. 6, 2021. The confused citizens who participated in the capital riots had been whipped into a frenzy through the unscrupulous use of lies and misinformation by political leaders fearful of losing power. Although these leaders share a preponderance of responsibility for the riot, average citizens who participated are not relieved of their culpability and participation in the attacks. The rioters are all personally answerable for the death, injury, and destruction of public property that this insurrection caused.
The key civics lesson to be taken from the Capital insurrection is freedom without responsibility results in chaos and death. We are a nation of laws that are framed in our Constitution. This document’s power is that it guarantees our right to freedom while protecting other citizens and their families from the unlawful and irresponsible expression of personal freedom. As I have stated many times in this column, the price of individual freedom is an extraordinary sense of personal responsibility to your neighbor, your community, and your country.
The benefits of wearing a mask during this pandemic are not subtle or unclear. Wearing a mask is not a slight on your personal freedom as some warped political leaders suggest; it is an act of civic responsibility to your neighbor. The amount of media attention paid to mask-wearing as a political issue prevents citizens from excusing themselves due to lack of knowledge unless the citizen has truly been living under a rock (in which case they are not in danger of contracting or spreading COVID-19).
I am saddened and dismayed that several state governors are relaxing or eliminating mask mandates even as we begin to emerge from the worst of the pandemic. Since there is no science available to back up such a decision, one can only assume that the distorted political motivations that led to the Capital riots are again at play. Truth established through empirical fact in medicine as in politics is vital, and a concept that must continuously be reinforced with our patients.
One of the nice things I enjoyed about being a physician in uniform is nobody really cared whether I was a Democrat, Republican, Independent, or other. Service members only cared whether I was a competent physician and that I had sworn the same oath that they did to protect the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. While I may have strong opinions concerning our elected leaders (and I do), I have never allowed those opinions to get in the way of my primary responsibilities as a military physician. I may loath the politician elected to power, but I will defend with my life the system that lawfully put them in power. Furthermore, I will serve that political leader to the best of my ability, not out of respect to the leader, but out of respect for the Constitution and the American people it represents. That is my responsibility as a federal physician, and I appreciate the clarity it provides for my life.
Wearing a mask is a statement, but not a political one. When you wear a mask in public, you are merely stating that you recognize your personal responsibility as a citizen to help reduce the virus’s spread. It is an act of civic pride and a demonstration of respect for your fellow man. Nothing more. Rarely is a citizen allowed to do something publicly that is so simple in its execution yet so powerful a statement in what it means to be an American.
As federal medicine providers, we have an added responsibility to speak out against the ignorance and lies that would ignore the clear scientific value of masks and turn this simple act of altruism towards your neighbor into a political position. COVID-19 is certainly bipartisan regarding mask-wearing since it will kill Democrats, Republicans, and Independents with equal heedless ferocity for those who shun this simple barrier to disease. So, for the love of country and your neighbor, I would add to Dr. Fauci’s quote as I counsel my patients about their personal responsibilities regarding their health. “Wear the damn mask!”