Whether we wear a mask or practice social distancing depends on how we understand and view COVID-19, ourselves, the role of government and the relationship between our individual freedoms and our obligations to the larger community. Then there’s the political and economic choice: Should we practice the measures recommended by public health officials, or should we act to protect the economy?
This is a false choice. If the coronavirus pandemic continues unchecked, the economy will fail, despite efforts to reopen businesses and return our state to the way it functioned prior to the pandemic.
Many believe incorrectly that COVID-19 has gone away or will go away as the weather warms up. But increasing infection rates in South Carolina and elsewhere demonstrate that this is not happening; this virus will be with us for the foreseeable future. Another common misconception is that COVID-19 is no worse than seasonal flu. Yet in a mere four months, more than twice as many people have succumbed to this illness as die annually from the flu. Another widely held misconception is that this disease only impacts people who are elderly, sick or belong to minority groups. In fact, healthy people, children and non-minorities can be infected and can die from the virus. We are now experiencing a surge of young people who acquire the disease and suffer serious complications.
Many consider government mandates regarding masks an infringement on personal liberty, but freedom has limits: A person has the right to assume risk for him or herself, but that right does not extend to harming others. Using a cloth or surgical mask in public affords the wearer minimal protection. Instead, as studies have demonstrated, a carrier of the virus wearing a mask decreases the spread of the virus to others. Thus, masks protect others. Refusing to wear one limits others’ autonomy.
It is difficult to see ourselves as a threat to the liberty of others if we do not feel sick, but because this disease can be spread before one experiences symptoms, any of us could be carrying and spreading the virus without our knowledge or intent to spread it.
You might have heard someone say, “I wear a mask to protect you, and you wear a mask to protect me.” What is less obvious is that wearing a mask also protects the economy.
As South Carolina has reopened businesses, hair salons, bars and restaurants, the economy surged. At the same time, though, reopening also resulted in an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 cases, especially in young, healthy people. This spike threatens the state’s long-term economic well-being.
As the number of cases increases, fear of the virus decreases customers’ willingness to shop. Infected people cannot visit restaurants and bars. When workers become ill or must care for sick loved ones, they cannot operate their businesses, cut hair, serve food or work in service industries. If those who process meat, drive trucks or work in manufacturing become sick, supply lines will be disrupted. If health care workers fall ill, they cannot treat patients.
Under such circumstances, businesses will fail, customers will be deprived of goods and services, and the health and safety of South Carolina’s citizens — whether they acquire the virus or not — will be jeopardized. Universal mask wearing and social distancing don’t merely decrease the spread of this COVID-19. Those practices mitigate fear, and prevent the illness and death that could destroy our long-term health as well as the long-term health of the economy.
Wear a mask for the protection of others. Wear a mask to support the economy.
Dr. Sewell Kahn is a Charleston physician and member of the S.C. Pandemic Healthcare Ethics Advisory Council.