On being … viewed from behind someone else’s mask

By Ingrid Sapona       

The title of today’s column is an admittedly clumsy reference to the old saying about not judging someone until you’ve walked in their shoes. That adage, which is about practicing empathy, has weighed heavily on my mind during this pandemic.

Like many, I find wearing a face mask uncomfortable. I find them hot, they often fog up my glasses, they snag my upper eye lashes (which aren’t particularly long), and even my ears seem to get tired by the minor tugging of the elastic fasteners. Boohoo… right?

When I’m feeling especially annoyed from wearing a mask, I rein in my frustration by reminding myself that no matter how irksome the mask is, I’ll bet being on a respirator in the hospital is way more uncomfortable! I also think about healthcare workers who wear masks all day. Indeed, for them, masks are just the first of many layers they have to wear when dealing with COVID-19 patients. Talk about uncomfortable! And, when I’m tempted to tug the mask down or off, I think about how lucky I am that I barely have to give more than a passing thought to whether the mask is contaminated. Poor healthcare workers have to be as careful about how they take their mask off as they are when they suit up at the start of their shift.

But mask wearing isn’t the only activity that causes me to think about our heroic healthcare workers. As odd as it may sound, I think about them every time someone asks me to sign a waiver of liability before using their facilities or services. (For example, my sail club required members to sign a waiver before being allowed to launch their boat. Similarly, my condo board wants residents to sign a waiver before using the communal barbecue.) I completely understand the rationale for such waivers and I don’t have a problem with them. In fact, I think they’re a useful reminder to folks that the virus is still very real and that certain activities present higher risks. And I don’t blame businesses for wanting to limit their liability.

I wonder, however, if folks would equally willingly sign a waiver that said that if they get COVID-19 from undertaking riskier activities they’d agree to forego medical help. Every time someone quickly, perhaps unthinkingly, signs such a waiver and willingly assumes added risk, they’re also increasing the risk of burdening the healthcare system and healthcare workers, who don’t have a say in the decision that person made when signing the waiver. Maybe such waivers should include a caution that there’s no guarantee the healthcare system will be available if the system becomes overburdened as a result of folks who willingly assumed the risks associated with various activities.

In the early days of the pandemic, there was lots of talk about “flattening the curve”. The rationale behind that was the very real concern that the healthcare system would become overwhelmed if we didn’t slow down the rate of spread of the virus. The initial concerns related largely to insufficient supplies of things like N95 masks, personal protective equipment, and hospital ventilators. Those supply-chain problems have pretty much been sorted out, but the pressure, stress, strain, and danger healthcare workers face is on-going, even if it doesn’t get as much news play these days.

Though I believe that we’d slow the spread of the virus if people routinely wore masks when out and about, I get that it’s a contentious issue. And so, I understand why government authorities – and business owners – prefer to let people decide for themselves. My only wish is that when people weigh the pros and cons of wearing a mask, they think about how their decision might impact two groups: those whose health is precarious and the healthcare workers who’ll be called on to help those who become seriously ill due to COVID-19.

© 2020 Ingrid Sapona


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