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Harry's Gang: Don't put away your masks quite yet

Now that the city’s mask mandate has ended, and most schools are removing their requirements that students wear masks at school, we can all hope that the pandemic is waning and may soon be over.

Not so fast.

This pandemic was caused by a new and tricky virus, and even after two years, we simply don’t know enough about it yet. Some reports say it will be with us forever, much like the flu or measles. Others say it may die out, like SARS did a few years ago. Still others think we may be able to get the coronavirus under control, like polio, and like we are getting closer to doing with AIDS. No one knows for sure. So, we have to stay vigilant.

Leaders did the right thing by requiring masks in crowded places, to limit the transmission of the coronavirus. It was courageous. No one, especially politicians who crave the public’s approval, wanted to be the ones who were responsible for canceling the hockey tournaments and family holiday get-togethers and so forth, but it needed to be done. And, if infection numbers creep up again or if a new variant rips through, we need to be ready. Even if it means a return to a mask mandate and other restrictions.

But for now, we seem to have some relief. Omicron has peaked, we are told, and the numbers of infected, while still concerning and significant, seem to be falling. Plus, so many of us are vaccinated and have gotten our boosters, that the risk seems to be lower. I wish more would get the vaccination, but we are making progress and eventually, maybe, we can eradicate it.

One thing that has me perplexed: Somehow, the mask issue got twisted up in politics. That genuinely confused me. I don’t like wearing masks; I don’t know anyone who does like wearing masks. But since we knew very little about this new virus, it made sense to be cautious. When we learned that the virus was transmitted on people’s breath, it made sense to try to limit infections by requiring masks (and social distancing, etc.).

So I was surprised that some tried to use the pandemic as a political tool. It didn’t take long for politicians to start blaming other politicians for the response to this health crisis, and it worked: people took sides.

What fascinated me the most is how quickly propaganda from the politicians was absorbed by so many people. It was as if the politicians at the top were eager to see how far they could push their followers. Would the masses be willing to risk their own lives and their own health to blindly follow their politics? In other words, could politicians convince people to be so loyal to their political party that they would rebel against commonsense safety measures, even if it meant they could get very sick and even die?

Apparently, the answer is: yes. Many people did. And still do. The announcement that masks would no longer be required was greeted by many as a sign that they had “won” a political argument. That they had “beaten” the politicians who were looking out for good public health. Such arguments are dangerous, because the next time we have a health crisis, more people will be emboldened to ignore the experts and rely, instead, on politicians who have an agenda. And way too many people will not realize it.

I’m reminded of a story from my fifth-grade reading class. A long time ago, in a small Asian village on the sea, the people were gathered at the edge of the water when the sea suddenly started retreating, exposing more and more of the sand bottom. Curious, people started wandering out further and further into the sea floor, now exposed. One of the village elders noticed the crowds, and started yelling at the people to come back — it was unsafe! But the people just laughed at him. “See how many fish we are catching; just scooping them up and putting them in our baskets. This is the easiest fishing we have ever seen, and you want us to stop and come back to shore? You are crazy, old man!” But the old man had seen this before. Retreating water is the precursor to a tsunami, and sure enough, a huge wave rushed at the village and washed most of the villagers back out to sea. The old man took no comfort in being right. His village was lost.

I do fear another Covid wave. Now that people are more relaxed, and are letting down their guards this mysterious virus is ripe for a comeback. I hope we are ready.

Pete Radosevich is the publisher of the Pine Knot News community newspaper and an attorney in Esko who hosts the cable access talk show Harry’s Gang on CAT-7. His opinions are his own. Contact him at [email protected].