Columnist J.M. Sorrell: Does anyone care?

Published: 6/30/2020 1:49:16 PM

During this country’s public health catastrophe, we continue to hear that partisan politics are responsible for the continuation of preventable COVID-19 cases and deaths. Leadership has been lacking, incompetent and inconsistent. While delays in action and a lack of protective mandates have most certainly contributed to the spread and increase of the virus, there is something far more insidious and prevalent that causes me to lose hope in basic human decency.

Public health professionals and medical personnel working with COVID patients around the world have consistently implored each person to do two simple things to stem the tide: In all public settings inside and outdoors, always wear masks and keep physical distance from people outside of your household. That distance should be six feet in passing but closer to 12 to 15 feet when stationary and socializing.

The willful ignorance and entitlement involved in not wearing masks and paying little attention to physical distance cannot simply be attributed to the right-wing fringe groups. Over these last few months, I have expected people in progressive western Massachusetts to catch up with public health pleas. They have not.

Drunk driving has consequences. It is mandatory to wear a seat belt and to drive within speed limits. Why is someone’s warped idea of freedom — not wearing a mask and distancing one’s self in public indoor and outdoor spaces — acceptable when that person potentially risks the lives of all s/he comes in contact with? Such a person is a lethal weapon.

Gov. Charlie Baker has not helped on this score. He continues to say he trusts residents to do the right thing as he merely recommends the practices that successful countries have required of its residents. His head was in the sand when the pandemic first hit, he then made some admirable leadership decisions, but he never put into place demands for residents with punitive consequences. As cases rise and people still die every day, how is it OK that the government does not demand practices that clearly save lives?

When I have gone grocery shopping, too many customers have come within inches of me to grab something they want. I used to love the ritual of food shopping. Now I am having it delivered simply because every time I have given it a try, other customers have endangered me and responded with ridicule when I have asked for space.

I have been a social and environmental justice activist in one way or another for nearly 40 years, and I have been attacked for my feminist stances and for my work as an anti-racist leader over the years. Nothing has compared to the level of vitriol I have received for asking people to keep their distance from me in public and to mask up. The coarse and threatening language launched at me when I ask someone to keep distance and mask up is alarming each time. It is violent. The non-masking wearing people with no sense of space express outrage by the request. My usual optimistic self has little hope.

I will not accept such willful ignorance or sociopathic lack of consideration for others any more than I accept racism, misogyny, climate change or homophobia. It is wrong. I should not feel to be an at-home hostage when two simple practices could mean predictable outings and a restored economy. Other countries have chimed in with utter shock regarding our perverse concept of freedom in the midst of a highly contagious disease.

Perhaps you think I am asking too much. Here are notable sources and commentary. From Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School for Public Health (The New Yorker, Issac Chotiner, June 27): “We’re trying not to have any contact with strangers that’s up close and unmasked. Going to the grocery store with a mask is a necessity, or a near-necessity, and that has some risks; and being outside means you could catch a wayward virus from someone on an air current. That’s certainly not zero risk.”

A clear and tragically self-destructive component of the American priority to do what we want when we want is the plethora of death threats aimed at the public health officials who are in the business of saving lives! This cruel madness makes the insults hurled at me seem mild in comparison. “One top health official, Dr. Barbara Ferrer, the director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, issued a statement on Monday (June 22) condemning attacks on public health directors and disclosing that she faced repeated threats to her safety. ‘The death threats started last month, during a Covid-19 Facebook Live public briefing when someone very casually suggested that I should be shot,’ Dr. Ferrer said in a statement. ‘It is deeply worrisome,’ she added, ‘to imagine that our hardworking infectious disease physicians, nurses, epidemiologists and environmental health specialists or any of our other team members would have to face this level of hatred.’”

At this point, I would settle for groups of bicyclists to stop shouting at each other in their pack as they pass me watering my garden near the road and for walkers and runners to cross the street for distance since none of these people are considerate enough of their fellow human beings to bother wearing masks as I do. It is painful to see so many parents with their children walking and cycling without masks. It would feel like a luxury to be in public space with predictable faith in others. I cannot for the life of me imagine feeling callous towards others when my breath could infect them. I can be counted on to do my part. Can you?

J.M. Sorrell is a social justice activist and a health care advocate. She mistakenly used the term “paddy wagon” in last month’s column unaware of its origins as pejorative toward the Irish. She is proud of her Irish heritage and offers an apology to anyone who felt offended.

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