“Mask Refuseniks” and the Death of Neighborliness in the United States

Nothing reveals character better than a deadly global pandemic. It is like looking into a bathroom mirror in the brightest and harshest of lights, reflecting every little flaw and imperfection.

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the flaws and weaknesses of the social fabric that binds Americans together, threatening to tear that fabric apart as selfishness and indifference compete with selflessness and compassion for others. The pandemic is revealing that we are in danger of becoming a nation of bad neighbors, a collection of disconnected people with an attenuated sense of social responsibility easily overridden by self-centered impulses.

We must restore neighborliness and do so quickly. Not just superficial “Hi, neighbor” friendliness, but a rededication to the ideal that everyone in the broader community is important and deserves our protection. The sense that we are share responsibility for each other’s welfare.

It is rare that an event or series of events is so cataclysmic that the strengths and weaknesses of American society itself are revealed. The last time was almost 100 years ago, during the Great Depression. It was a time before even the imperfect safety net that we have today existed.

There is a recurring theme when survivors of the Great Depression are interviewed: It is that “neighbors helping neighbors” got them through it. Neighborliness has played an oft-overlooked role in our success as a nation, as it did during the Great Depression.

Can we count on that type of neighborliness to get us through the dark days of the pandemic that still lie ahead? Based on what we have seen so far, I have my doubts.

The United States has more than its share of “mask refuseniks” — folks who choose to ignore the entreaties of public health officials to wear masks when in public. The refuseniks are a case study in the death of neighborliness in this country.

Each of us should view the pandemic as a test of character

Three months ago, as the pandemic was heating up, I wrote an article describing the coming months as a test of our collective character. Here is an excerpt:

Our collective character is of course shaped by the actions of each and every one of us, and we each must accept the challenges that lie ahead as a personal test of our character. How are we doing so far? The answer is that my worst fears are coming true: Unless we make a dramatic turnaround, we will emerge from this pandemic an irreparably broken nation, our trust in each other lost.

Nothing demonstrates the trouble that we are in more than the continuing refusal of many Americans to wear a surgical or other type of mask to reduce the chance of unwittingly transmitting the virus that causes COVID-19 to other people. No more perfect test of neighborliness could be devised than the willingness to wear a mask.

The phenomenon of mask refuseniks

The University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimates that only between 20 and 60 percent of Americans currently wear masks whenever they are in public. A recent study by IHME projects over 208,200 deaths related to COVID-19 by November 1st if the use of masks continues at that rate.

The same study estimated that there will be 162,808 deaths by November 1st if 95% of Americans begin wearing masks when in public. In other words, about 45,000 lives can be saved in the next four months if Americans embrace the universal use of masks when in public.

The IHME study is not yet peer reviewed, but it tracks results of earlier studies, including one in June by the University of Cambridge that found if 100% of people wore masks all the time in public it could prevent a second wave of Covid-19 in the 18 months that it likely will take to get a vaccine to market. Of course, the United States still is struggling to overcome the first wave, hampered by the refusal of too many Americans to wear masks when in public.

As described by IHME director Dr. Christopher Murray:

It is a sentiment echoed by every competent public health expert and public official. So, what is the problem? Why are there so many “mask refuseniks” in this country?

A failure of leadership

I do not want to understate the role that the failure in leadership at the national and state level has played in the national obstinacy about mask usage — the leadership failure was pivotal. President Donald Trump himself dismissed the importance of masks, turning it into a political issue for his supporters.

By doing so he is morally responsible for the deaths and future deaths of tens of thousands of people in the United States, if not more. It is a measure of the malignancy of his character that I discussed in an article last month.

Trump has shown no inclination to appeal to the better angels of our nature by urging us to save lives by wearing masks. Just our luck that in a crisis when we most need a president capable of providing strong, moral leadership, what we have instead is an amoral narcissist like Donald Trump.

His failure to vigorously support his experts’ calls for the universal use of masks ranks as one of the most catastrophic decisions in a presidency filled with bad decisions. Nevertheless, he is not solely to blame. Sycophantic GOP governors played their part — as did a decidedly selfish, almost mean, streak in our society.

“Rugged individualism” gone wrong

Mask refuseniks make a variety of excuses. Some couch their decisions as matters of personal choice rising to the level of a constitutional right. That pretext was disposed of over a hundred years ago by a Supreme Court case upholding mandatory smallpox vaccination, Jacobson v Massachusetts. It is a weak rationalization for a lack of concern for the health of others.

It is attempts by Trump supporters to link the rejection of masks to the “rugged individualism” that is part of the American ethos that I find most irksome. Trying to associate the wearing of masks with weakness reflects a complete lack of appreciation for the nobler parts of our history. Endangering others by refusing to wear masks is a perversion of the concept of rugged individualism, not a manifestation of it.

Observers of American society as far back as the French diplomat de Tocqueville noted that individualism and self-reliance went hand-in-hand with a remarkable willingness to band together voluntarily to confront the challenges of life in the first half of the 19th Century. Neighbors helped each other put out fires, give birth to children, bring in the crops, and tend to the sick.

Early Americans, who overwhelmingly identified as Christian, took literally the exhortation by Jesus to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Neighbors were considered inside the orbit of self-reliance, not outside of it. The rugged individualists of the American frontier would be horrified if they saw how we are acting toward our neighbors today.

The Evangelical Christian paradox — infect thy neighbor as thyself

Given the instruction by Jesus to love thy neighbor as thyself, you might think that modern day American Christians would embrace the idea of wearing a mask, the purpose of which is to prevent you from doing harm to your neighbor. And they do — that is, except for Evangelical Christians, who studies show are less likely than other Americans to comply with social distancing and mask requirements. Indeed, the resistance to wearing masks in some Evangelical congregations is almost an article of faith, intertwined with their fealty to Trump.

The “love thy neighbor” admonition appears in all four gospels. In John 13:34 it reads:

Often referred to as the Eleventh Commandment, it is the essence of what it means to be a Christian. The lesson for Christians in the death of Jesus Christ lies in his resurrection and in eternal life.

The lesson from the time that he spent on earth, however, is the centrality of virtuousness and compassion for one another. It is the part that Evangelical Christians, in their unholy alliance with Trump, have too often neglected. Their attitudes toward social distancing and masks make a mockery of Jesus’s words. Obsessed with secular power, they are more concerned with controlling the behavior of their neighbors than helping them.

Is there any hope?

As to the wearing of masks, there is a possibility that fear may accomplish what common sense and compassion did not. The death rate from COVID-19 is spiking again, and some of the hardest hit states are those in which resistance to social distancing and masks has been most pronounced. Mask mandates, and compliance with mask mandates, will increase when deaths continue to skyrocket and panic sets in.

As to neighborliness in general, there is no reason for optimism until there is a change in leadership of our country. The social fabric is torn, and it will take national self-reflection about who we are and what we stand for, guided by leaders capable of compassion, to help us repair it.

Ironically, the protest movement following the death of George Floyd offers a ray of hope. It is an indication that Americans still are willing to look upon members of their extended communities with care and compassion, regardless of color. To treat them as neighbors should be treated, and as we would want to be treated ourselves.

As quaint as it may sound, we need to restore neighborliness as a core American value, recognizing that we really are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, their fates intertwined with our own. As we are finding out, a society without neighborliness is not much of a society at all.

Epilogue

It dawned on me when proofreading this article that parts of it sounded as if I was channeling Mr. Rogers. If so, I could have done a lot worse. Fred Rogers, who died in 2003, mercifully did not live long enough to see what has become of his Neighborhood in the past four years. We have made a real mess of it.

Retired lawyer, former prosecutor, former social worker, Army vet — former lots of things. Commentary published in Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and elsewhere.

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