Opinion: A serious response to those mocking me for wearing a mask
Adjusting my face mask, I walked to the counter of a party store near my cottage in northern Michigan. “Six bags of garbage,” I said, handing the woman $18 for the privilege of throwing my vacation waste into her dumpster. Standing less than six feet away, a curly-haired blonde girl — maybe 7 years old — pulled on her father’s T-shirt and pointed at me with a dimpled grin.
“You’ve got coronavirus! You’ve got coronavirus!” giggled the cherub in that sing-song voice kids use when they’re mocking somebody. Her father looked at me sheepishly and — in an act I interpreted to be a silent apology — tipped the bill of his “Trump 2020” cap at me. Before I tell you how I responded to the girl’s chant, let’s talk about what I wanted to say.
I wanted to tell her that I just turned 57 years old, I’m overweight, and I have a history of pneumonia. According to the Centers for Disease Control, those three factors make me susceptible to severe illnesses related to COVID-19.
I wanted to tell her I wasn’t wearing the mask just to protect myself. I was wearing it to protect her. Does she know that I don’t need to be sick to infect her? Silent transmission of COVID-19 accounts for as much as half of all infections. Without that mask, I could spread coronavirus to the little girl and her father — and they could infect her siblings, her mother, her grandparents, her best friend, her best friend’s family and all the families her best friend’s family knows.
I wanted to ask her father why she was in the store without a mask? Why was he? As a member of a coalition of health care and business leaders working to educate Michigan residents about the pandemic, I know he’s far from alone. Nearly 40% of adults are less concerned about the virus today than they were a month ago, according to coalition polling. Only 17% of those polled were more concerned.
The coalition also scoured state data for important trends, including this odious one: Black people account for 65% of all deaths of Michigan residents under the age of 60, despite being just 14% of the state’s population, according to a Michigan Economic Recovery Council analysis of state data.
I wanted to ask the girl if she liked animals. Because, of course, all kids love animals — and then I could tell her about the radio show I heard on the way into town about ants, lobsters and mandrills. Turns out, many animals are wired to know when one of their peers is infected with a virus and they instinctively keep a distance. They protect themselves.
Why do so many humans refuse to do what animals do? “Lobsters, ants and mandrills don’t watch cable news,” answered the show’s host, Scott Simon of NPR. “They can’t scour the internet and social media sites for gobbets of misinformation to fool themselves into thinking this virus, which has sickened and killed so many, is somehow unreal or hyperbolized.”
I wanted to tell the girl there’s nothing phony or funny about the coronavirus — that several states are experiencing summer surges of the pandemic. After achieving steady declines in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the late spring, our state has seen an increase in daily cases over the last month. I wanted to tell her that children can get sick, too. I wanted to tell her to be careful when she goes back to school. If she goes back to school.
Such a beautiful little girl. Such a loving father, no doubt a decent man who cared enough about my feelings to tip his cap. I wanted to beg them both to stay healthy. Wear masks. Wash your hands. Stay six feet away from people outside your immediate family. Maybe they’ll read this story and remember the middle-aged guy with the garbage money who grinned awkwardly during the girl’s song. “You’ve got coronavirus! You’ve got coronavirus!”
They might recall how I lowered myself to her eye level and said, “I hope I don’t got coronavirus. It’s made some of my friends sick — and I’ll never see one of them again.”
Then I nodded at her father and tipped my Tigers cap. “God bless you and your family, sir.”
Ron Fournier is a former White House reporter and political journalist who now runs Truscott Rossman, a communications strategy firm based in Detroit.