Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Columbia University Medical Center
New York, NY
This is part of our series, Flattened By the Curve, which features the voices of doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and others on the front lines against COVID-19. For information on how to submit, click here.
When I see you without a mask, I try to understand. It’s hot outside. These masks are uncomfortable, even breathable cloth ones, so itchy on sensitive skin. It’s an annoying, obstructive, intrusive, unwelcome change. I know just how you feel. I hate all of my masks — from the truly oppressive N95 I wear at work to the simple, puppy-decorated fabric covering I wear on walks with my husband and daughter.
But when I see you without a mask, I can’t help but feel angry. My thoughts wander to news stories and headlines of protesters proclaiming that masks infringe on their personal liberties. I wonder, have you made a similar choice? Have you decided that simple measures like mask-wearing, hand-hygiene, and physical distancing are beneath you? Is your refusal to change your daily routine an act of defiance? It’s an anger I can’t avoid, one steeped in my own personal experiences. I feel wronged, outraged at the disrespect for the tragedy my community has seen. I remember the vibrant, real lives whose loss stings more than any front-page article can convey. I feel attacked, knowing each act of disregard for public health puts my coworkers, my friends, myself, and my family in danger. I know it makes a second peak inevitable, unnecessarily brutal, and intimately painful.
When I see you without a mask, I feel a deep sadness. I know I cannot see your motives, assess your agency, or assign malice. The guidelines change so rapidly, and perhaps you are simply confused, skeptical, understandably distrustful. The uncertainty mounts around us, and perhaps you cling onto this choice to insert some control. Or perhaps you simply can’t understand the devastation we are trying to prevent, having never seen it yourself.
And perhaps, above all, you don’t realize how important your role is in this battle. Because when I see you without a mask, I know that this nightmare will only last longer. I see the real sacrifices so many of us make — spanning the broad spectrum of suffering social isolation to braving war-like hospital frontline work — all being for nothing. Public health is public, and only works when we work together.
When I see you without a mask, I see a society that places doctors like me tragically at odds with the people they have pledged to heal. It’s a false divide with a faulty foundation. Social media posts misquote my oath back to me, citing a duty to serve and encouraging needless sacrifice. But I reread the Hippocratic Oath, and I see clearly that it is as much a “contract” as an obligation. It calls for true “partnership” with my patients, instructs me to treat those I care for like I do my own family, and demands an alliance between us.
When I see you without a mask, I wonder if you are willing to listen. Scientists, doctors, public health officials don’t have all the answers, or even most of them. But we know, for now, that masks, hand washing, and distancing are the best course of action. For most, wearing a mask is a small sacrifice, a mild inconvenience that we can reasonably adjust to. The loss of freedom is fiction: When I see you wear a mask, I see an act that instead restores liberties. Your mask allows you to wade more safely, more quickly, back into society. It is a lifeline to the essential workers who have no choice but to remain on the frontline, giving them the freedom to do so as safely as possible.
When I see you with a mask, I feel relieved. We are all angry, and we are all scared. It is only by directing these emotions at the invisible viral enemy we all face — instead of turning against each other — that we can all win.