I’ll protect you. Will you protect me?

Everyone should wear a mask inside public spaces.

A black, cloth face mask with the words “My mask protects you. Where’s yours?”
Artwork created by the author.

wrote an article a few weeks ago (has it only been a few weeks? my internal clock feels like it was last year), in which I laid out three basic rules to follow to avoid viral illness. You can read it here.

I didn’t tell you to wear a mask.

At the time, the CDC was discouraging people from mask-wearing. Their perspective, way back then, seemed to be that people could not be trusted to:

  1. Not hoard surgical and N95 masks that healthcare workers desperately need right now;
  2. Wear masks properly without the mask itself becoming a vector of infection (e.g. not touch the outside of the mask, or touch their face to adjust it, or take it off to eat and then put it back on, etc.);
  3. Wear a mask AND continue to practice social distancing and hand-washing.

There are good indications now that DIY masks, composed of multiple layers of cloth worn tightly over the nose and mouth, do help.

Wearing a DIY mask inhibits transmission because it blocks your nose and mouth from expelling virions (virus reproductive particles) out into the air when you breathe or talk. This means fewer virions in the air where they can be breathed in, and fewer virions landing on surfaces where they can be spread via people’s hands. By wearing a basic mask, you protect other people from the infectious particles you may be unknowingly spraying out into the environment.

Unfortunately for you, if no one else around you is wearing a mask to similarly limit their own spray of particles, your cloth mask does not adequately prevent you from breathing in particles from someone else.

DIY masks that incorporate multiple layers of tightly-woven cloth, as well as non-woven disposable filters, provide more effective protection for the wearer.

There is no way around the need for social distancing (at least 6 feet of space between you and others), hand-washing, and surface cleaning. Wearing a mask is just an added protective measure to limit the danger you pose to your neighbors. I highly recommend this article and this article for everything you need to know about DIY masks.

Let’s repeat that: we all have to keep washing our hands, cleaning the things we touch, and staying away from each other.

That said, if you and everyone around you is doing those three things, and wearing a mask, the rate of transmission slows for everyone.

Is this The Great American Trust-Fall?

A DIY mask doesn’t help the person wearing it nearly as much as it helps everyone else.

To choose to wear a mask right now is the ultimate pro-social behavior in a time of social distance. It communicates to everyone around you that you care about them.

I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me.

If you want to say “we’re in this together” and mean it, wear a mask.

It’s important to reiterate here that:

  • You cannot know if you have the virus based on how you feel.
  • You cannot know if someone else has the virus by looking at them.
  • You cannot know if there are virions floating around your community based on where you live.

The most ethical way to go through the world right now is for each of us to behave as though we’re infected, and we want to avoid spreading the infection to other people.

I’ve noticed more women in masks than men. In fact, I have yet to see a man in a mask, and I recently had to visit a hardware store where there were at least 10 other patrons, all of whom were men. None of them were wearing masks.

A few weeks ago, when the CDC first announced its recommendation of DIY masks, President Trump said in a press conference that he wouldn’t wear one.

“I dunno, somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t,” he said. “Maybe I’ll change my mind.”

Change your mind, Mr. President. How each of us sees ourselves, and the preconceived notions we have about what masks mean, and how we’re afraid we might look in them, pale alongside the moral imperative we have to protect each other.

If men aren’t wearing masks because they think it looks weak, that may be the best example of toxic masculinity I’ve ever encountered (literally, it’s toxic.)

Seriously, though. Wearing a mask protects people weaker than you. It’s a show of unselfish strength and compassion.

There are myriad options for DIY cloth masks. You can buy one, you can make one, someone craftier than you can make one for you, you can repurpose a sweatshirt, towel, scarf, or bandanna... As long as whatever it is has multiple layers and a close fit around your nose and mouth, you’re helping.

Consistency, resiliency and empathy will get us through. ❤︎

A.M. Carter earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Florida. She writes about philosophy, science, politics and current events.

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