It is not often that I applaud and agree with the words of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), but his quote from this past week, which was probably said out of deep dismay and frustration in response to the escalating COVID-19 crisis in Florida, reflected exactly how I’m feeling in this moment. I may be gaining more critics than friends in writing this. And sadly, some readers may be more unnerved that I used an expletive in the opening than by my core message that wearing a mask is what the Golden Rule and Christian discipleship require.
This past week I felt myself entering a downward spiral as I experienced the emotional toll due to new attention around another video showing senseless police violence against Elijah McClain combined with news of the alarming spikes of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the country, particularly in Texas, Florida, and Arizona, where my retired parents live. I have long been outraged by the colossal failures in political leadership in response to the coronavirus, which helps to explain why the United States remains the epicenter of the global pandemic, accounting for nearly one third of all deaths around the world. But I have been growing increasingly exasperated by the selfish individualism and hubris that defines the behavior of far too many Americans who refuse to regularly wear a mask and practice social distancing, despite the continued warnings and guidance of public health experts. It’s as though a growing segment of our nation has simply given up or is over it. And sadly, many states seem to be defaulting to a strategy of harm reduction rather than serious mitigation and ultimately containment.
Culprit No. 1 is President Trump, who continues to refuse to wear a mask in public because he says that it doesn’t look presidential. I strongly disagree. At their best, presidents exhibit and model integrity, responsibility, and empathy, particularly in times of national crisis. What doesn’t look presidential is organizing indoor campaign rallies in states like Oklahoma and Arizona, which are experiencing dramatic spikes in infection, and calling on his supporters to risk their lives to attend while forcing them to sign forms that release his campaign of any liability. What isn’t presidential is time and time again saying, ‘do as I say, not as I do,” as he publicly defies his own national guidelines with his behavior and tweets. These reckless actions will cost lives. But it is too convenient to put the blame only on President Trump. We all have a role to play and responsibility to bear.
How did wearing a mask become a partisan act rather than a public health imperative? Tragically, even wearing a mask has fallen prey to our culture wars and political polarization. According to Pew research, in recent months mask wearing has become a partisan issue. Democrats and those who lean Democratic are more likely than Republicans and Republican leaners to say they personally wore a mask all or most of the time in the past month (76 percent vs. 53 percent). But the virus doesn’t care about our politics or our party loyalties.
While some parts of the country are much less affected by the COVID-19 crisis than others — and everyone must exercise their own best judgment — when indoors and when in places where you are likely to meet other people or have to pass closely by other people, for heaven’s sake just wear a mask. While I don’t pretend to be a public health expert, I trust and respect those who are, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has pleaded with the country in countless press briefings and interviews to wear a mask and socially distance. According to epidemiologist George Rutherford “What you want is 100 percent of people to wear masks, but you’ll settle for 80 percent.” In one simulation, researchers predicted that 80 percent of the population wearing masks would do more to reduce COVID-19 spread than a strict lockdown. The latest forecast from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation suggests that 33,000 deaths could be avoided by Oct. 1 if 95 percent of people wore masks in public. That’s 33,000 preventable deaths. Yes, wearing a mask has become a pro-life commitment.
Wearing a mask can be uncomfortable, inconvenient, and sometimes just downright annoying. But wearing a mask saves lives — it communicates that you care and understand the gravity of this pandemic. Wearing a mask says, “I see you.” In 1995 I spent six transformational months in South Africa studying abroad. During that formative time, I had an opportunity to learn Zulu. A greeting that has now become more popularized always stood out: Sawbona, which means I see you, and the response, Sihkona, means I am here. The greeting reflects the African notion of ubuntu, or I am because we are. It conveys just how inextricably interconnected our lives are — as neighbors, as a country, and even as a globe. As one of my favorite preachers, Dr. Freddie Haynes, preached recently: “infection anywhere is a threat to infection everywhere.”
Pastors and clergy often hold a great deal of moral authority and are still some of the most trusted voices in their communities. That is why their voices are so desperately needed right now to debunk conspiracy theories and show some tough love to their congregants. My plea to every pastor is that if you haven’t already been doing this, preach and teach about the critical importance of wearing a mask. It is not just a public health imperative, it’s a gospel imperative.
So, for heaven’s sake, let’s all make a firm commitment today to wear a mask and encourage everyone in our spheres of influence to also wear a mask. Because in the process we will be protecting and loving ourselves, protecting and loving our neighbors, and advancing the common good by living out the Golden Rule.