By James Borders, MD
Governor Beshear believes in mandating facemasks for indoor public settings in response to current COVID numbers. Early into the pandemic, faced with a public health crisis for which there was no effective medical therapy or prevention, he imposed restrictions on businesses and personal behaviors to which American society was unaccustomed. All of this was in attempt to “flatten the curve” of rising cases to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by a flood of COVID patients. At the time, vaccines were unavailable, and the prospect of having an effective and safe one seemed to be a distant dream.
For the better part of a year, effective and safe COVID vaccination has been available. Despite the availability of several excellent ones and recent full authorization of Pfizer’s version, a surprising percentage of Americans are declining to take them. Influenza vaccination is commonly mandated for healthcare settings with the potential of causing rare but severe reactions including Guillain-Barre syndrome, Stevens-Johnson syndrome, or anaphylaxis, but there seems to be no public outcry against requiring it. What is so different about the COVID-19 vaccines?
Top-down mandates on personal and business freedoms that preceded disease prevention and treatment options offered by the medical community set the tone for a populist-minded public to resist mandates in general. Changing recommendations by the medical community in response to changing scientific understanding served to affirm the skepticism held by conservative populists with an anti-science tendency. Dr. Fauci’s changing messaging on masking was seized upon as evidence of incompetence in providing official medical guidance. By the time the vaccines became available, they were assimilated with the rest of perceived government overreach, a perception aggravated by mandating them in certain settings.
In June, 2021, the state Supreme Court upheld laws passed by the Kentucky legislature limiting the governor’s emergency powers. The court, though generally liberal leaning, acknowledged that there was expertise on both sides of the aisle to examine the over-arching costs and benefits of the governmental responses made to the pandemic. Costs of COVID restrictions must include a calculation of the impact upon emotional well-being of children kept isolated from others, the adverse effects on education of virtual instruction, and the impact on our economy, among many others.
Allowing for some ongoing debate on vaccine safety, what is there to argue against mandated masking? Had a mask mandate been instituted earlier into the pandemic, compliant businesses and schools may have been given an opportunity to remain in operation. Regarding mandating facemasks in schools, we can’t have it both ways. It is illogical to oppose facemasks in schools while insisting on in-person classroom instruction. Masks are cheap, safe, and offer some protection both for the wearer and those around against disease spread. At worst in most every case of masking opposition, masks are acknowledged to be slightly uncomfortable and annoying. If they offer some protection and, by wearing them, offer some opportunity of normalized operations, who can oppose them?
I’ve been most perplexed by the opposition to masking and vaccination offered by some in the faith community, of which I am a local church leader. The most sublimated arguments offered often boil down to resistance to being told by someone else what to do. This may be claimed as an American individualist virtue, but it is not a Christian one. Christians are taught to think of others first, to do what benefits others- or, in biblical speech, to “submit to one another”. I can think of no better examples of a Christian response to the pandemic as getting vaccinated and wearing a mask indoors around others.
Early into the pandemic, I said that how we Americans responded to it would teach us about ourselves as a people and a nation. Would it expose us as self-absorbed and intellectually backward, or would it offer this generation the opportunity to reassure ourselves and the world that America can still be trusted for resourcefulness, creativity, and charity?
James Borders, M.D.