I clearly remember back in college failing part of a lab practical exam because I removed my gloves the wrong way. In a testing situation where I really wanted to do the right thing and knew exactly what that was, I messed up.
Everyday all around me I’m reminded of this lab exam. The general public has never studied for the test on how to properly use PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). It is always a problem when people simply don’t know what they don’t know. Sure there is the guy at Costco tearing open a bag of chips in the check out line and having a snack under his mask with his gloves still on. But I’m equally concerned about the less obvious things. Masks and gloves can provide a false sense of security that could lead to a complete loss of the point.
Immunity, contagion, sanitation, asymptomatic carriers, co-infections … all daily headspace for me. The bulk of people I work with have chronic illnesses/invisible diseases. I have 3 elementary-aged kids and an immune-compromised husband. I fully get the notion of living in a world full of possible ‘bugs’ that you don’t want to get, give or carry around. I also fully get that COVID-19 is a ‘novel’ bug requiring special attention. What I do not get? Why the public service message has swung to wearing a mask.
I’m not at all saying that masks aren’t a rightful player in the conversation, but … 1) If we are going to wear PPE, the message has to be using it correctly and 2) What about immunity? There are some very key pieces of the public conversation that seem to be understated or left out (vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, how to stay healthy at home, fresh air, reducing stress, healthy microbiomes, how long it takes to arrive at efficacious vaccines, and more, and more, and more …). We could be doing a lot differently to empower ourselves and promote collective sustainable health.
The mainstreamed public service announcement isn’t about what actually makes sense from a disease prevention/health promotion standpoint. The public has loudly heard the message to ‘Stay home! Wear a mask if you leave your house!’ This just doesn’t entirely make sense people. There is WAY MORE to the story. In this climate and phase of our pandemic, the emblem of the mask is more about judgement, divisiveness and misinformation than public safety and personal safety.
We can find ‘people worth listening to’ on both sides of the story. Depending on which side of the story your script falls, your bias may put you in a clear camp with badges of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ So be careful. In March, we were standing on our balconies and singing with our neighbors. Here in May, we are divided by media-informed judgement calls and misinformation. Any way you look at it, anything that adds more stress, more uncertainty, and more ways to inadvertently harm ourselves is plainly bad for our health.
THE ROLE OF CONFUSION …
This from Anthony Fauci, Director of the NIAID (video interview below). “When you are in the middle of a pandemic, wearing a mask might make people feel a little better or even block a droplet but it’s not providing the protection people think it is. And often there are unintended consequences; people keep fiddling with their masks and touching their faces. When you think about masks you should think about medical people needing them and people who are ill.” This video is from March 8, 2020. To date, this sentiment is still the official line of the World Health Organization.
Truth is truth when it is true. And right now, it’s pretty hard to sort through whose truth is the real truth. Or, on what day what was true. Or, in the hands of whom. Or, from what source. Or …??? So, I have to fall back on my early college education and be realistic. Even when people show up intending to do their best, not everyone knows how to use PPE.
As such, not everyone is going to feel comfortable using PPE or being around others that may or may not be using it properly. It’s a no-one-wins/no-one-wins situation. If nobody can possibly win ‘this’, then perhaps all we can do is be respectful and kind to those around us. Or, at least try.
- To one person with asthma, it is crazy TO wear a mask … breathing in their own air worsens their symptoms. To another asthmatic, it is crazy to NOT wear a mask … they might catch something that could worsen their asthma.
- To one immune-compromised person it is crazy TO wear a mask … decreasing their overall immunity by closing themselves off from normal pathogens and healthy microbes?! To another immune-compromised patient, it is crazy to NOT wear a mask … become more ill by exposing themselves!?
- One person is fine with others making their own choices based on what they know and believe to be true. To another, it is disrespectful or unpatriotic or unethical to be out in public without a mask. (Starting to feel and sound like other divisive ‘issues’ like gun control, abortion and gay rights …). Ugg …
THE ROLE OF PERCEPTION …
It makes not one moment of sense to judge this book on its cover. That person wearing gloves and a mask in a grocery store (perhaps touching their mask, reaching in their purse, adjusting their glasses, inspecting the eggs, picking peppers, pushing a cart etc.) is safer and more respectful to you or me than a person without gloves or a mask, using appropriate hygiene, never touching their face/personal belongings being fastidious and acting in the best interest of their own health by not wearing PPE? Judgement there. Not reality.
It isn’t about a truth of the ‘right’ and ‘most responsible’ COVID-specific way to behave. It is apparently more about perception. That inner felt sense, a hesitance or trigger that certain environments and/or people just aren’t safe right now. Perception will drive how businesses get back at it and people re-learn how to relate. Not mandates. Not regulations. Not PPE. Only the future will tell us the truth of what was safe and what wasn’t. For now, we are all in it together. We don’t know.
- Some people think it is crazy to eat out/get carry-out. Others have survived that way these past months and can’t wait for restaurants to reopen.
- Some think having somebody else shop for, bag and deliver your groceries is a god-sent, others think it is disgusting and unfathomable.
- Some guy is eating chips in the line at Costco. Somebody else quarantines all of their groceries when they get home.
- Some want to go back to work. Others would prefer to ‘keep safe and stay home.’
- Somebody rides their bike wearing a mask. Somebody else jogs along side a friend like the pre-COVID days. Somebody else isn’t even going outside at all.
No matter what you do right now, somebody sees it differently. There will certainly be some clarification of ‘who your people are’ in a new, felt way. And somehow that reality has metaphorically become honed in on the mask. I even heard that the political parties are making masks so people can wear their vote like a bumpersticker this election year. This whole industry and dynamic of masks is just beginning…
For whatever sad reason, in a world where we need more interdependence and unity we keep finding more ways to divide ourselves. It would be a ‘win’ for humanity if we didn’t let COVID-19 and it’s Public Projections of Energy divide us further. It isn’t about the mask.
THE ROLE OF MISINFORMATION …
Misinformation is as much a public health crisis as anything else right now. If you’ve not been trained in medical field, there is a lot you don’t know you don’t know. If you’ve never been trained to read research, there is a lot you don’t know you don’t know. If you only ever watch Fox News or CNN, there is a lot you don’t know you don’t know. Even if you are trained to think about such things, you know enough to know that 1) the information we are being given has huge holes and 2) there is a lot you know you don’t know. This ends everyone in the same place. We don’t know. But … there is a big dangerous difference between knowing that you do not know something(s) and being oblivious to all that you don’t know. It’s icky, incredulous and uncertain to sit with.
The Dunning-Kruger effect (see chart below) is a cognitive bias where we overestimate our knowledge or ability in a given area. We can see this everywhere in our world playing out. Armchair virologists. Amateur epidemiologists. And, PPE shifting their role from Personal Protective Equipment to Projections of Pandemic Energy. It isn’t about a medical truth. It’s a symbol, an advertisement, of what we think we know and the energy that we are carrying around with us in this pandemic experience.
AND FINALLY, THE ROLE OF GRIEF…
This will be a long relationship with COVID-19. We will need to each find new ways to wear and adapt to our ongoing vulnerability. The Valley of Despair and the Slope of Enlightenment are not for the faint of mind or heart. It has become a chronic situation, and we are far past the 30-day mark on the stress curve.
A friend was pointing out the similarity this all has to the grief that often ends marriages after the death of a child. Everyone grieves differently. Deep grief can tear people apart. There is always denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. But people each do them in their own way and order. If you want to keep the marriage together, you have to honor the pace and rhythm of the other.
That is something you have to WANT to do because it is hard to support (or just tolerate) somebody when you think you know better for them and you’re filtering their choices as ‘wrong’ and yours as superior. Everyone has to let everyone else move through it in their own way. All you can be is responsible to yourself and respectful of others. Try testing the premise that everyone is showing up each day doing the best they can, even if their best (PPE or not) seems crazy to you.