A hand-painted sign adorns a certain lawn I pass as I drive to my clinic in rural Pennsylvania: “Say no to masks.” I have never laid eyes on its author, and I presume him to be a man of principle who loves his family and his country. But the sign is a gut punch: My heart despairs with the sense that, from the safety of his home, he is oblivious to the special ravages that COVID-19 causes to the minority of his countrymen and women who serve on the front lines of this new war.
Like a growing number of health care providers, I am a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. I took great pride in the way our citizenry — people of all political stripes — managed to disagree heartily about the provenance and justness of those wars, while simultaneously lifting a unified voice of gratitude for the minority of volunteers doing the fighting. It seemed we had outgrown the acerbic politics of the Vietnam War era, when soldiers endured a dual betrayal by ineffectual government and an unsympathetic, even vengeful populace.
Unity makes sacrifices meaningful
After 9/11, our unity transcended our disagreements. Ideologically, we were diverse; but e pluribus, we were unum. The unanimity of our country’s support was a great gift to service members. It dignified us and made our sacrifices meaningful. It embodied a democratic ideal worth fighting for.
In this new war, blinded and weakened by our recent political animosities, we have not rallied to support our combatants, or our casualties, in the same way. COVID-19 and its economic devastation affects all Americans. But as in the other wars of our era, it is only a small minority of Americans who face the enemy in daily, brutal, intimate battle.
Intensive care unit nurses and doctors have sweated under plastic personal protective equipment, churning through death with scarcely time to cry in the breakroom. Emergency room and primary care providers, already overtaxed in our health system, have nearly broken triaging the exponentially growing numbers of ill. Their sacrifices for the sake of their communities have been constant, legion and, yes, heroic. Some will likely suffer post-traumatic stress disorder from their unblinking proximity to unrelenting death on a wartime scale. It is hard to appreciate this trauma from outside the hospital walls.
And this is to say nothing of the infinitely greater sacrifice made by the more than 500,000 already dead, and the deaths still to come. At its peak, COVID-19 deaths represented a 9/11-size loss of life daily; the cumulative death toll is likely to exceed that of World Wars I and II and Vietnam combined.
Don't betray our health care workers
What do we owe our front-line workers? And what do we owe our fellow citizens who are most at risk of death in the months ahead? When we reflect on the moral inheritance of our faith and family, does it seem too great a sacrifice to wear a cloth mask in public for a few more months? Or to offer our arms for a nothing-less-than-miraculous vaccine, to definitively end the pandemic? If so, I worry that this generation of pandemic health care workers will feel a version of the betrayal articulated by our Vietnam War veterans.
Invest where it counts: If opening schools is so important, why are we skimping on protections that curb COVID?
Let us not forget that personal sacrifice for the collective good in times of crisis is in our national DNA, Democrats and Republicans alike. Before becoming president, Herbert Hoover oversaw an effective voluntary rationing campaign during World War I. During World War II, the government under Franklin Roosevelt issued rationing stamps and limited access to butter, milk, sugar, meat, stockings, gasoline, cars and rubber under the Emergency Price Control Act.
Freedom from such sacrifices is a relatively recent American luxury, but selflessness is not beyond our national character or our collective grasp.
As a philosophical conservative, I understand skepticism of government overreach and the desire of governors in Texas and other states to lift mask mandates and restrictions on businesses. Strong social institutions and shared norms, not government diktat, have shaped our destiny and defined our national character. But for this reason above all, our character must not falter now.
Take whatever COVID vaccine you can get: All of them stop death and hospitalization
Rather than squabbling over government-mandated masks and trivial personal “freedoms,” let us voluntarily take up our wartime resolve until this crisis passes, considering especially those on the front lines. And let us recognize this moment as the national emergency and generational challenge it is, requiring our steeliest selves. Support the troops: Mask up, get the vaccine when you can. These are the surest and fastest ways to end this pandemic and restore the freedoms we cherish most.
Dr. Jonathan Wood, a family resident physician in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, was an Air Force intelligence officer from 2003 to 2010 and a 2016 Pat Tillman Scholar. The opinions expressed here are solely his own.
You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID front-line health workers need your support. Mask up, get vaccine.