By BEN R. WILLIAMS
Last week, I lost a close family member to COVID.
It was inevitable, in a way. Over the past several months, a handful of acquaintances have died from COVID — people I’ve known in passing, or the family members of people I know well. With 450,000 deaths and counting and a U.S. population of about 328 million, I had a feeling that before all this ended, I would lose someone close to me; God willing, she’ll be the only one.
Since March, I’ve written several columns about the Coronavirus. I’ve honestly lost count of how many at this point. Every time I’ve written one, there has been a part of me that has thought, “If I can explain it just right … if I can use just the right analogy and just the right examples … maybe, just maybe, some anti-masker out there will see the light.”
I have no illusions about the audience for my columns. I know that most of my readers are folks who already agree with what I’m saying, and the folks who disagree probably quit reading years ago or only read long enough to get a little bit of background for the angry letter they’re writing. I can accept that.
However, I still had the hope that maybe some anti-masker would stumble across one of my COVID columns, give it a read, and have a sudden awakening, a moment in which they finally realized that maybe, just maybe, it’s important to make the most minor of sacrifices to protect the lives of their fellow citizens.
When I look back on all of those columns now, do you know what I see?
I used to have pity for the anti-masker, those people who firmly believe that taking the barest precautions to prevent the spread of a deadly disease that’s wracked this country for nearly a year is a sacrifice too great to make. Some of these are people who have been so firmly brainwashed by fringe conspiracy theories that they genuinely believe COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, or that hospitals are inflating the numbers of COVID deaths to get more money. Others are so brainwashed that they don’t believe the virus exists at all, even when they’re gasping for life on a ventilator. Still others, I believe, know that the risks are there, but they’re confident that THEY would survive a bout with COVID, so why should they have to wear a mask?
Like I said, I used to have pity for the anti-maskers. It’s gone now. They’ve had nearly a year to educate themselves and dig up some feeble scrap of basic human decency. If they haven’t done it yet, they’re simply not going to.
I stopped at the grocery store on the day I’m writing this. There’s only one I go to anymore because there are never many people there, and I go at odd times. As I walked through the store quickly picking up items, I saw a woman walking through the store without a mask, the only person in the entire store without one. She was loudly talking on her cell phone and laughing with her friend on the other end, not a care in the world.
She made me think.
The first thing I thought of, of course, was how much I wanted to go up to her and inform her that I’d lost a loved one to COVID less than 24 hours earlier. I didn’t, but I wanted to.
I thought of a friend and former coworker of mine — a woman who’s just a few years my senior — who caught COVID about two months ago and is still in the hospital breathing through a tracheostomy. She had no underlying conditions, she just got dealt a bad hand. It looks like she’s out of the woods, but her recovery will likely be prolonged and difficult.
I thought of a dear friend of mine who is immunocompromised. She recently experienced a crisis of faith because her pastor spends the first ten minutes of every online service shaming those parishioners who choose not to show up to church in person. He believes their faith isn’t strong enough. I believe that you can have faith in God and also realize that it’s a poor choice to play Russian roulette in the hope of winning through divine intervention.
I thought of all the dirty looks I’ve gotten just for wearing a mask in public, and the time a lady without a mask coughed loudly and theatrically as she walked past me, scurrying away the moment I turned to make eye contact.
I thought of all the articles I’ve read — dozens at this point — about people who believed COVID was a hoax right up until the moment they caught it, issuing grave warnings to take this thing seriously as they lay in their hospital beds.
I thought of the cousin of a friend of mine. She lives in New York City and likes to sit on the roof of her building at night. When COVID was at its worst in New York, she ended up moving her chair from one side of the roof to the other because she didn’t want to look at the refrigerated trailers used to store the bodies that wouldn’t fit in the local hospital’s morgue.
I thought about a friend of mine who works in the funeral industry. A couple of weeks ago, he told me their casket distributor has cut their line down to just three models. They had to streamline production to meet the booming demand for caskets.
And I thought about all the countries that haven’t been ravaged by this thing like America has, countries like Japan and Australia and New Zealand that didn’t play around with their COVID response and allow people to waltz around claiming fraudulent medical exemptions and spreading their disease like Johnny Appleseed.
No, my pity and my sympathy are gone. There’s barely any room for anger. All that’s left is the emptiness that comes from the dawning realization that about a quarter of the public are simply incapable of compassion for their fellow man. It just isn’t in their nature, and nothing can change that.
Unlike my previous COVID columns, this one isn’t for the anti-maskers and conspiracy theorists; it’s for the regular folks forced to navigate the world alongside them.
As hard as it is to believe, one day, this pandemic will be behind us. When that happens, I have no doubt that the folks who refused to wear masks, who laughed off the pandemic, who thought the whole thing was a hoax, will be counting on the rest of us to forgive and forget.
As of now, I’m undecided on the forgiveness part. But I guarantee that I won’t forget.