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Too long don't read! Why I wear a mask, in response to my friend's question

Dec 01, 2021

I recently shared a post from the NHS that a friend (senior NHS nurse) had posted regarding new protections being introduced to help prevent the spread of the omicron variant.

An old friend of mine from my WA days, Tommy, popped up and asked:

"Have you found compelling data regarding the efficacy of mask wearing?"

Great question! My brain went off in a whole host of directions so I thought I'd list them here. This is NOT for debate, it's how I came to the conclusions I have, just MY take on this one. I'm not a virologist, 
epidemiologist or public health expert so this is in no way intended to give you chapter and verse on anything other than my rationale. Tommy, I hope it does justice to what I trust was an honest question.

Ok so I have split the following into 6 categories, in no particular order: Personal, Social, Existing knowledge, Political, Faith, and Questions... told you it was long!

PERSONAL

1) I freely admit that for over a decade, an easy way to incur my ire is to knowingly come into an unnecessary setting when you are germy. When you KNOW you have a cold or something else that you could pass on and you are not compelled to show up (say at a choir practice, for example), it has long done my head in that people didn't think of who they could be sharing their germs with. Whether those with underlying conditions, immuno-compromised or elderly, what is minor for you may not be for the poor sod stuck sitting next to you coughing and spluttering your germs by them. Given the age profile of the choir I used to be in, my issue was less for myself and more for others.
So I have form in being historically averse to the sharing of germs.

2) I am also 'clinically vulnerable' so I am going to make different choices not just for my own safety but because I know I am far from the only person this applies to and many of the clinically vulnerable/clinically extremely vulnerable do not LOOK sick, so you can't just tell by looking.

3)Here's the biggie: personal responsibility. For me, much of this comes down to my answer to the question 'who do I want to be?' (more on that in the Questions section)

Early on I started following experts in all the fields I could think of who were studying covid and had dedicated their lives to battling infectious diseases. The people who had skin in the game and, to my mind, are there doing a job that they are far better equipped to interpret the data than me.

Early on I also saw the question of masks being raised due to their use in other scenarios, and though of course there was no consensus directly as this was a new iteration of coronavirus, I still thought I would start making masks in case that's where things went (side note- my mum took over as my sewing skills weren't up to making the better shaped ones!)

4) Pride- I felt a bit of a tit walking into Tesco's wearing one when only one or two others seemed to be, but that first night I had it in my pocket, as things were starting to escalate here. Well up ahead of me was an elderly man and he looked terrified. I wasn't close to him but I could see unbridled fear and honestly, I felt sick at my own PRIDE because that's all it was keeping me from doing something simple to make him and others like him feel even a little more safe/cared about. I put the mask on then and there. Because I do care about keeping others safe, but this was early on, before others were doing it, and to my shame, I temporarily let my feelings cloud my care. Lesson learned.

SOCIAL

As we've long known, 'behaviours are caught, not taught'. I believe that each of us in society has the right, privilege and responsibility to care well for others in society, whether we like them/it or not. Society is not society if it is just a bunch of individuals doing what pleases them, and in the midst of a pandemic, that stands on a global scale.

That's not convenient or sexy, and it doesn't always feel good, but it is my personal conviction that we don't just get to sit back and imagine we are powerless to influence society (or the trajectory of a pandemic). We ALL have power to do *something* to help others, and doing whatever that may be is something that I try to do, and model for others- imperfectly, but there we go.

If I manage to convey care by being considerate of others' space and wearing a mask, that's a cheap price to pay for me - and again, this is a PERSONAL answer, not a sweeping one.

EXISTING KNOWLEDGE

1)Other cultures have experienced nasty airborne bugs (e.g. SARS, H1N1) and already use masks to mitigate risk from other diseases such as flu. That made me wonder if there was benefit here.

2) Quantitative research takes time, and performing RCTs to explore the efficacy of masks against covid-19 would be nigh on impossible, or at least could prove highly unethical! Thus any decision I made was going to have to be on the basis of other factors and questions. I was not going to take a chance on not doing something potentially helpful by waiting years for the appropriate research to be available. Worst case I've not prevented any covid transmission, but I've had my heart pointed in the direction of caring well for others and have had fewer colds than previous years. Both of which I regard as a result!

3) Here's a biggie for me: It's not just about covid- it's the systemic knock-on effects

What I mean is- hospitals and doctors' surgeries have limited capacity. When that capacity needs to be diverted for a virus, that means that other patients who are not immediately suffocating to death will not get the surgeries they need, that beds may not be available for other services, cancer treatments may not go ahead because the finite supply of nurses is required elsewhere...

Sooo if a mask can help prevent spread of other bugs like flu, which put strain on the health service, then preventing that is ALSO helping in the fight against covid. So it became an issue of whether this *might* help protect against spread of covid *and* help prevent spread of other bugs too.

POLITICAL

I don't have a lot of faith in politicians. Whatever they do, that doesn't absolve me of the responsibility to think through the issues and take personal responsibility for MY actions.

Whilst I recognise that much of this has become a political issue in some countries- not least ours, to me this is not about sides of some parochial domestic political argument. This is about humanity v. a virus and we suck at fighting it because we're too busy lusting after power, rights, and other individualistic pursuits to actually work together, act in ways that prioritise the welfare of others- not least those who are most vulnerable. Maybe that's selfish of me to want that since I technically fall into the clinically vulnerable category, but I have a more collectivistic view on this that we are all inter-connected and don't get to ignore the plight of others. To me this is a public health issue which requires all of us, and no matter what politicians do, as a woman of faith, for me God is still on the throne.

FAITH

As someone who follows Jesus, it came down to me asking 'what's the most loving thing I can do?' 
If masks are useless, I still did something I intended to help. If masks aren't useless, I contributed to society by doing something really modest.

Either way, vulnerable people (including me) maybe felt a little more safe, a little more seen and cared about. 

As a Christian, demanding 'my rights' is not what we're called too. We're called to love one another and lay our lives and wants down for others. For me, that means do everything the scientists are saying can help (and of course be careful that the sources I listen to are peer reviewed and rigorously scrutinised)- ventilating spaces, keeping distance, frequent hand-sanitising, wearing a mask, getting vaccinated- and that latter not just for covid but also against flu (again because of wanting to do my part in reducing potential strain on the health service).

QUESTIONS

We make different choices in this life based on the questions we ask. So here are a few that have rattled around in my head over the past 2 years:

How do I keep myself and those I love as safe as I can?

Who do I want to be?

What's the most I have power to do- within reason?

How can I add to better outcomes for the whole (what's my individual role in society in this situation)?

How do I model Jesus and love others well?

Obviously this is a categorised version of much more messy thought processes, but I hope it helps explain my rationale, even though I have not quoted a single data source. The first systematic review of mask-wearing has only just been published in the BMJ so you see why I didn't want to wait for the data before making my choices!

We may come to very different conclusions and again, this is my personal rationale in response to your question Tommy. If you've read this far, I hope you and yours are doing great <3 

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