The turbulent 1960s and now: Has anything changed?

So much has been written about the Covid-19 epidemic that it’s hard to imagine what else can be said. And yet as the virus stubbornly persists, we are driven to talk and write even more. As much as we would like to generalize, the impact of this pandemic is personal and subject to personal interpretation.

The whole mask phenomenon is a conundrum. To wear or not to wear is the big question. I’ve been in businesses where every employee wore a mask, in others where no one wore a mask, and in others where some employees wore masks and some did not. Customers wearing masks tend to be older on average, but way fewer than half are masked.

While government can require or strongly encourage mask-wearing, it comes down to a personal decision. While older people are at greater risk, it’s not simply generational, gender-based, or racial either. People of all ages, sexes, and races individually choose to don a mask or not.

Those who accept the reality that their behavior may impact another person’s health wear masks. Those who view mask-wearing as wimpy or giving up constitutional rights - don’t. Is it political? The President doesn’t wear a mask in public view, while former VP Biden does. I’m surprised I haven’t seen a ‘Make America Great Again’ mask.

As has been said many times, your mask protects those around you, not you. Wearing a mask is a public profession of a private decision that you care for the other person enough to be inconvenienced by wearing a mask. Safe to say, as time goes by, fewer and fewer are wearing masks.

This crisis has triggered some other issues along with the obvious medical ones. The question of individual rights versus public safety looms large. Should the government be able to tell you to wear a mask, social distance, stay home from work, or even decide for you whether your business can open or not? The answer seems to be yes, for a few weeks, and then no, as the crisis persists and self-discipline lags. We now see too-large groups congregate tightly in parties, at the beach, and in some churches, all oblivious to the potential harm to others. With no vaccine, disregarding masks and ignoring social distancing can predictably lead to prolonging the Covid-19 problem in those places.

Churches are a special category. Initially compliant, some are increasingly asserting their right to assembly and their freedom to worship. Anecdotal evidence suggests clustering encourages contagion in houses of faith. Still, some are pursuing court challenges to limits on their free expression of worship. Others consider themselves like businesses, and follow applicable guidelines to protect their members. Within places of worship, one finds those who wear a mask, and those who won’t. It seems that the Golden Rule isn’t always the final arbiter even in sacred spaces.

If you work in a business, or perhaps are even a business owner, how has it felt to learn whether your business is essential or non-essential? Usually the marketplace determines which business is essential, even if its product seems frivolous. Interestingly, all government jobs seem to be essential. Wonder if taxpayers (including some closed down), agree?

What you really don’t want to hear is that the essential/nonessential determination is being made by the government, which may or may not know much about your particular business. Then you find out that the essential/nonessential definition differs from one jurisdiction to the next. The question of fairness naturally arises. It’s something for people to contemplate when big government is advocated as being the solution to the marketplace and most of life’s inequities.

What’s missing in the Covid-19 picture? Could it be the concept of individual accountability and personal responsibility for one’s actions? Personal sacrifice is something we applaud in key professions but often fail to practice in our own lives. Putting another’s welfare ahead of your own is earnestly endorsed in theory but fast-disappearing in practice. The herd mentality is strong, and manifests at beaches, bars, and swimming pools, where social distance is measured in inches, not feet.

There was no crystal ball when China exported Covid-19 to the world. Washington and Austin have exhibited diligence in formulating and implementing policy on the fly. It had to be trial and error, to some extent. Did we overdo it by shutting down the whole country? Time will tell, but it looks like the answer is “yes,” judging from the ensuing economic carnage. Huntsville is not Hoboken; New Mexico is not New Jersey. Perhaps a partial geographic shutdown? Who really knows yet?

Hindsight is 20/20. My guess is that the effort and outcome would have been about the same if the other party had been in power. There is no magic bullet, no proven protocol.

Much is still unknown because of the power of individual citizens to alter the results of any bureaucratic plan. How Americans choose to comply with or flout social policies to defeat the outbreak will go a long way to determining whether we put this storm behind us or continue to feel its wrath because of blatant selfish disregard for the health and welfare of our neighbors.

Think about that the next time you see someone enter a business or common space unmasked, or run up somebody’s back in the grocery checkout line. And hope that the person before you and behind you is considerate of the less robust. Old and frail lives matter too.

Gene G. Blair has been a resident of Huntsville for 40 years. He is retired from the Criminal Justice Center at SHSU, and is also retired from the U.S. Army. He is a director on the executive board of CASA of Walker, San Jacinto, and Trinity counties.