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Op Eds

Facing COVID-19 with Mask Up and Mind Open

By James D. Davis
James D. Davis is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

It sounds obvious: Take care of your health; it could save your life.

The number-one factor for a successful encounter with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that precludes COVID-19, is health. A healthy immune system, healthy cardiorespiratory function, and the absence of obesity, diabetes, and other complicating variables are essential to successfully overcoming infection.

But even being young and healthy cannot eliminate the risks of coronavirus. Although they are not common, tragic stories like the sudden passing of 30-year-old Ben Luderer make the nature of risk uncertain.

Again, it sounds obvious: The only certain way to not die from coronavirus is to not contract it. To limit the likelihood of contraction, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend social distancing and mask wearing (assuming proper mask hygiene), in line with research that suggests this is ideal practice.

These two approaches to COVID-19 do not seem to conflict: A healthy body can be the best way to fight off the disease, and masks and social distancing can help limit the spread of the disease. Yet what should have been a simple and harmonious idea has become a raging public debate that sets “personal health” enthusiasts against “masks are a must” devotees.

One side says personal health is the key to staying safe in the pandemic. In some cases, gyms are pushing back against local government, insisting that fitness matters more than supercilious, and allegedly unconstitutional, government guidelines.

At the same time, those who are adamant about mask-wearing have given rise to the phenomenon of mask shaming. Those public health vigilantes do not always recognize that complicating factors, like the country’s multibillion-dollar obesity epidemic, cannot be dismissed.

The trouble is that the discussion has turned into an argument. One side has been pitted against the other. Instead of working together through the pandemic, certain journalists, Twitter trolls, and public figures have polarized what should have been a simple and harmonious idea: Take care of yourself through personal health, and take care of your neighbor by limiting the spread.

What makes this concept so difficult?

From a psychological perspective, it might be a collective case of cognitive dissonance — an uncomfortable psychological state in which “two or more modes of thought contradict each other” in a person’s mind. For example, one might personally believe that mask-wearing could be effective but maintain a strong emotional resistance because members of your social circle are vocal to the contrary. The “mental discord” that arises will usually force someone into a hasty and overly simplistic resolution. Resolutions can include ignoring information which contradicts a held belief, combatting that new information, or restructuring the original belief (changing one’s mind).

Perhaps the more basic psychological phenomenon at play here is fear. We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic that has caused, at the time of this writing, nearly 1 million deaths. Many more have suffered greatly in physical, professional, and emotional ways.

In a state of fear, the sympathetic nervous system deploys its familiar fight or flight response. When the enemy is not clear, or the threat is as ambiguous as a pandemic or professional insecurity, then the human mind has been known to manufacture enemies. We give these abstractions a name and a face. And we fight.

At the farthest ends of this style of thinking we find war and terror. In the day-to-day version we find division and anger. We turn camps of thought into opposing teams, and we look for differences instead of similarities.

Yet the most interesting component of this debate is that no one has to be wrong. This public health discussion is missing humility. The only real concession to be made is to recognize that both perspectives contain truth.

Science is mobile. In good science, all “true” statements are examined, and many evolve. As Columbia University professor Stuart Firestein notes in his book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” “the best science can really be seen as refining ignorance.” The best science available once concluded that the Earth was the center of the universe, after all. Firestein also argues that a thoughtful approach leads not to judgment or certainty, but to a fresh new set of questions. It evolves.

It is possible that masks are not as effective as the current science claims. That might come to light someday. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wear masks based on the science of today.

It is also possible that a healthy body is not as effective at staving off the virus as we currently believe. Scientists might discover that there is a specific genetic predisposition to one’s vulnerability to COVID-19, and no amount of healthy living can protect those who are at risk. But that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make our personal health a priority.

In the face of such uncertainty, we should prioritize our health and wellness, which will give us the best shot at fending off the virus, and we should do our best to adhere to public health recommendations, which will give us the best shot at limiting the spread of the virus. We should listen to all credible perspectives and be willing to adjust our behaviors as new science appears.

Whenever strong emotions are involved — and few events have evoked as many of them for as long a time as the COVID-19 pandemic — we must progress not with judgment but with curiosity and humility.

James D. Davis is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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