“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect.” Eleanor Roosevelt
In light of the recent woes of the world, our country, states, and cities, Eleanor’s words are timely. Freedom does require everyone to take responsibility. Freedom is never free.
As the COVID-19 crisis continues and many states, including my own, are seeing alarming spikes in positive cases, there is resistance to masking mandates in the name of freedom. Time, and time again, those protesting and resisting mandatory masking proclaim their right to do as they please. But, do they have a right to purposefully, and willfully put others at risk?
Many states have laws against willful transmission of infectious diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis C. How is criminal prosecution of willful transmission of AIDS and Hepatitis C different from COVID-19 when we willfully choose not to wear a mask in public knowing we may be infected? All three are infectious, potentially life-ending viruses. Estimates of yearly deaths from AIDS are around 16,000. Estimates of annual deaths from Hepatitis C are about the same. Since COVID-19 hit the U.S. in January of this year, the U.S. has lost 130,000+, and the numbers are climbing daily. Putting numbers in perspective, the approximate number of daily deaths from cancer is about 1500, whereas COVID has killed nearly 2,000 in one 24-hour period.
I remember the announcement in the spring of 1981 well. Gay-related immunodeficiency disorder, or GRID, as it was first called, was identified as the virus killing gay men. We were still a predominately homophobic nation, so few people raised a hand to help or an eyebrow of concern until a young hemophiliac named Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. Ryan became the poster child for AIDS awareness and spurred the nation into action because Ryan was a child and expelled from school after he was diagnosed with AIDS.
AIDS was no longer confined to a small, largely ignored, and stigmatized segment of the population. In 1985, gay men were banned from donating blood, and tests were initiated to check blood donations for AIDS. Pharmaceutical companies jumped on the bandwagon too, creating drugs and vaccines. The Surgeon General advocated for sex education to include information about homosexual sex and protection from the AIDS virus. All of this in the name of slowing the spread of the AIDS virus, which at the time was considered a pandemic. We needed to protect the masses, after all!
Fast forward to 2020 and the global COVID-19 crisis. Until a vaccine can be created and drugs identified to treat the virus, wearing a mask to slow the spread of COVID-19 is simple, inexpensive, and effective. Yet, every night on the local and national news we hear about protests and opposition to masking mandates. What is the government thinking? We are being stripped of our freedoms, for heaven’s sake! Where will it end? Obviously, it won’t be long and we will be rounded up and crammed into railroad cars and taken off for extermination. All because of a simple mask.
Why wasn’t anyone ranting about gay men losing their freedom to donate blood in 1985? Did we consider it a reasonable safety measure? Perhaps, we didn’t want to risk becoming infected if we needed a blood transfusion? It wasn’t until 2015 that the FDA relaxed their ban and allowed gay men to donate again, provided they had been abstinent for the year prior.
Freedom is a tremendous responsibility. Freedom requires us to grow up and think about others besides ourselves and our personal comfort. We have a responsibility to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19, and if that means masking in public, so be it. If we can limit the spread, and the devastating effects of this new virus until a vaccine is developed, so be it. When we mask we are carrying the burden for those who cannot mask, for the elderly, for the immunocompromised. It’s a mask, not a number tattooed on our arms…..