LETTER TO THE EDITOR: COVID is a challenge of fear

·4 min read

Sep. 20—I teach at Odessa High School, and have lately become terrified to go to work. I should say why this is so. COVID-19 is a very oppressive feature of everyday life at our school. This is a controversial thing to say. Perhaps it should not be. But please bear with me for just a moment. Without providing any identifying information, I can still say that (on average) dozens of students and staff members at OHS test positive on a daily basis — and are then forced to quarantine. Some are in my classes; some are people I have sat next to in staff meetings. I also suspect that many more never bother with testing.

Many people at OHS (I will not speak about the larger community) seem to have nurtured the notion that tough people need not bother much about COVID. Wearing a mask — doing it properly, for many students wear masks that cover no parts of their faces — is for wimps. Or maybe mask-wearing is for communists and woke losers who hate America. I neither know nor care.

What I care about is my own health, and the profound dearth of compassion that I am surrounded by when I go to work. I am sixty; I am fully vaccinated; I am nonetheless at high risk of contracting the disease (it probably will not kill me) because of my workplace. This is a risk that does not need to exist.

Exposure to COVID, almost inevitable at OHS, can kill. It can kill older people. It can kill immunocompromised young people (they are here at school: They and their parents are also terrified). It can kill healthy young people who have disdained vaccination for whatever reason. And it can kill those who for medical reasons really cannot be vaccinated.

I know that many people sincerely believe that decisions like mask-wearing should be a matter of personal choice. I respect that argument: I believe that many deeply personal decisions about what to say, or how best to choose what is medically and morally in one's best interest, should be made by individuals, not governing bodies.

There are also times when public health concerns come into conflict with individual liberties. This kind of conflict is as old as this nation, and while I have definite views on where COVID fits into this complex negotiation of rights, my appeal is actually not an endorsement of school mask mandates.

The question of mask mandates has already arisen in the ECISD. The community spoke. The lawyers and accountants spoke. There is no mandate. Those who die or become gravely ill because of this decision — those who die who otherwise would not have died — are the moral responsibility of those who had the power to make a tough decision and who made an expedient one instead.

But I began by saying that I was terrified to come to work. There are others. Most do not speak out because doing so involves a very real risk of loss of employment, and a guarantee of excoriation by some of those who routinely write to the OA. None of that matters to me as much as asking this question: If people are made deeply afraid because of a choice that other people make every day, and if the choice is as easy as whether to put a cloth mask over one's nose and mouth — an act which for most of us causes mild irritation and a few more facial blemishes than we would like — what should people who value compassion do?

Should they rail against mask-wearers in school, or in letters here? Should they shame or mock those who are really afraid of the ubiquity of COVID and the likelihood of exposure? Should they continue unaffected because those who fear COVID are old, or are already sick, or are unusually vulnerable — and therefore of less value or of no value?

Compassion begins with empathy; empathy begins with feeling what others feel. So, if people who disregard masking value compassion at all, perhaps they need to know that such disregard makes others of us feel very much afraid. And just maybe, such disregard creates a greater chance that others will get very sick, or even die.

I want to ask a question that is perhaps a bit complicated; please bear with me: If your disregard for the feelings of others causes them to fear you, and if there is any chance that your disregard could do harm to other people, and if regarding the feelings and the health of others is relatively painless, how on earth could you continue in your disregard and yet call yourself compassionate?

David Newman


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