A child wearing a mask.

Photo by Lucia Macedo on Unsplash

Still masking after all these years

September 12, 2023

“Wow! I haven’t seen you without a mask in years!”

I was contentedly sitting in the rooftop hotel hot tub in San Juan, a favorite nighttime gathering place at this year’s Biennial Mission Summit. Animated by conversation with family and friends, I’m sure my smile was wide. It’s the feature by which I am best known.

And yet, as my colleague called from across the pool deck, I was reminded that few in this crowd had seen my smile in person in quite a while. I typically work with ministry partners on Zoom, and I wear a KN95 mask in the office and at events. While I recognize that I can smile with my eyes, voice, and body language, it’s also true that wearing a mask conveys a message, especially at this stage of life with COVID-19.

Here’s what I want my mask to say to you:

People are still dying from COVID-19. The World Health Organization COVID dashboard reports that as of the date I am writing, July 27, 2023, six million nine hundred fifty-two thousand and five hundred twenty-two (6,952,522) people around the world have died from COVID-19. I wrote the number in words to avoid racing past it—to plant it into my conscience, however inconceivable it might feel. It’s a number that many believe is a vast undercount, as the official COVID death toll fails to capture the deaths that result from long-term COVID consequences that significantly increase the risk of events like heart attack and stroke. Regardless, it’s too damn many.

I wear a mask to call you to lament—and to acknowledge the painful truth that many of the deaths occurring at this present time could be prevented with continued mitigation efforts.

Long COVID is a disabling event for millions. It is true that most who contract COVID survive and fully recover, especially if they are vaccinated and receive booster shots to update their immune response. But a percentage of a very large number is still a very large number. If 10-20% experience ongoing symptoms that meet the criteria of long COVID, this would mean more than 75 million people around the world have endured or are enduring symptoms like shortness of breath, heart palpitations, life-threatening clotting, treatment-resistant infections, neurological effects, the development of chronic illnesses like diabetes, and more. I know enough of them to believe these numbers are not exaggerated; our silence about them is.

I wear a mask to ask you to listen to and follow the lead of the disability community, both those living with the effects of COVID and those who have been doing the work of disability justice for far longer than this crisis. If you do not personally know people who are bedridden, out of work, out of money, and nearly out of time due to long COVID—from the very young to the very old—social media accounts abound. People living with COVID-related disabilities or those particularly vulnerable to COVID’s potential effects are begging us to hear their stories and to advocate for simple precautions like masks in healthcare settings and on public transportation. If we truly believe we are called to be like Jesus, these are the folks we should be following in this lingering crisis.

We are called to self-sacrifice. In spring 2020 I read several pieces that gripped me with their challenge that sacrifice is the central Christian call, even and especially in a pandemic. I spent hours lying awake at night, willing myself to be ready to give up a ventilator should I find myself trapped in the dilemma of too many dying patients, too few life-saving devices. While this was not my circumstance then, nor, I hope, will it ever be, this has certainly been a season of sacrifice as I defer experiences or alter my participation in them to remain masked.

I wear a mask to plead with you to make the continued sacrifice of staying home when you feel ill, testing repeatedly to ensure COVID is not the cause, and masking after you’ve been exposed or you know there might be vulnerable people in a group setting. (Hint: There are always vulnerable people, whether you recognize them as such or not.)

We saved lives in 2020 with social distancing and with a vaccine in 2021. We have the potential to save them today if we resist the push to all or nothing and instead focus together on how we can reduce harm.

We can be tired and persist in creating sustainable, inclusive communities. I can feel your fatigue as you read. You’re tired of thinking about COVID, tired of church members arguing whether masks were the reason people left or the reason some of us aren’t coming back, tired of the sore throat and cough that seem to emerge after each vacation, and seemingly too tired to connect the dots between our collective fatigue and mass resignation to repeated COVID infections. I’m tired too.

I wear a mask to remind you that the crisis has changed some elements of communal life forever, and that we have the tools for creative adaptation and inclusion. If you host gatherings, host elements of the event outdoors, or offer a virtual option with sufficient access and support to generate true connection (contact me if you want to brainstorm ideas!) The option of takeout meals and other acts of hospitality for COVID-cautious individuals are a necessary accommodation and should be built into events going forward.

Those of us still taking precautions desire connection and community too. I am forever indebted to a work colleague and new friend who texted me to say, “I know you don’t do group meals, but I’d really like to spend time with you. Would you be open to meeting outside for coffee or lunch one of these days while you’re in the office?” This sensitivity and the resulting lunchtime conversation have formed a lasting bond.

I wear a mask in hopes you will still include those, like me, who take continued precautions. In your invitation, ask how you can adapt to increase our comfort, and take it upon yourself to make this effort. (If you’re feeling at all unwell, wait for a better time!)

We have more we can learn and do. I have discovered over the past three-plus years that I am someone who can make sustained, significant changes for my good and for others who share this beautiful planet. I am encouraged by this to believe I can do the same in response to the climate catastrophe devastatingly unfolding. I see profound parallels between these two crises and how folks are responding to the dire pronouncements of what is happening, even within progressive communities that purport to be about justice. Our initial resolve to pay attention and respond accordingly eventually leads to numbing and a return to an unjust “normal.” Despite this, I am continually heartened by the communities on social media that remind me I am not alone in my choices. Together we advocate for a path through both crises that is more than “let it burn.” We saved lives in 2020 with social distancing and with a vaccine in 2021. We have the potential to save them today if we resist the push to all or nothing and instead focus together on how we can reduce harm.

I wear a mask to challenge you to learn about and act upon the ways we can still keep ourselves and one another safer.

Track wastewater in your area: The absence or invisibility of information about COVID rates in our communities is not an excuse for ignorance and inaction. Wastewater is likely the truest measure, as it doesn’t rely on individual testing or reporting; it is an actual picture of the levels of COVID in a given area. Make decisions about returning to safety protocols that do more than defer to local schools or businesses. Ask vulnerable members for their input.

-Clean the air: Become a “citizen engineer” and build Corsi-Rosenthal boxes for your sanctuary, fellowship hall, Christian Education wing, and choir loft. Build a few for your home as well. We have a large one on each floor, and when I travel for work, I carry a smaller one to run in the hotel. When one member of our family did contract COVID, the rest of us were able to avoid it by isolating, wearing masks, and continually cleaning the air.

Get vaccinated if you haven’t been, and prepare for your booster shot as soon as it becomes available this fall. Similarly, if you meet any criteria of added risk, seek treatment if you become infected, no matter how mild your symptoms. There is evidence that long COVID manifests in people with very few symptoms.

Invoke imagination. Sometimes I imagine what we might have done differently. I see parents carrying babies onto planes, and I imagine a collectivist society where everyone puts on a mask because we want to protect that young one. I imagine young, healthy people walking the aisles of the grocery store, wearing masks as they pass the senior who is unable to wear a mask around the tubing to their oxygen tank. I imagine small groups at churches building Corsi-Rosenthal boxes for schools and senior centers in their area. I imagine people caring through their exhaustion. I imagine a Church that centers the vulnerable instead of our own comfort.

I imagine one day gathering around a table with colleagues and friends, partaking in the meal, smiling widely, grateful for what I have learned about myself through all these years of wearing a mask…grateful that our shared persistence, science, and a miracle or two has reduced the need for it.

May it be so. For now, I wear a mask.

Jennifer L. Sanborn is national coordinator of Learning Initiatives, American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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