The Milestone that Should Never have been Reached

By John Smelcer, PhD, CAGS

JS Milestone 1

As I write this article during Memorial Day Weekend of 2020, the death toll of Americans who have died of Covid-19 is nearing 100,000. The New York Times listed the names of 1,000 Americans who have died so far from Covid-19. The list was three pages long and accounted for only 1% of the total deaths reported to date. And although most states have totally re-opened for business-as-usual, the pandemic is nowhere near being over. In fact, if history teaches us anything about pandemics, it’s that it’s just getting started. In the Midwest state where I live, it has been reported that two hairstylists may have infected over 100 customers. Clients reported that neither wore a mask or gloves. In order to circumvent going to my barber, I stopped at the local Walmart this weekend to buy a heavy-duty pet hair-trimmer so I could cut my own hair, which had not been cut since the beginning of the crisis. It was well worth the $30 I paid. My hair looks every bit as good as when my barber cuts it with a similar, certainly more expensive, professional trimmer. I may cut my own hair for the rest of my life, saving me an estimated $2,000 over the next two decades alone. But despite the fact that the state I live in has been identified as one with the highest increases in new cases of Covid-19, and that there’s been a spike in the number of workers infected with the virus at a nearby meat-processing plant, no one was wearing a mask in the jam-packed store. No one but me! Children weren’t even protected by masks. One woman was coughing up a storm, and yet neither she, nor her two children, wore face masks.

Everywhere I go . . . Let me rephrase that: I don’t get out much because I am self-isolating, but when I do go out for essential things like grocery shopping for my family, I overhear folks increasingly saying that the pandemic is a hoax. They say it’s not real. They say it’s all made up by “Lame-Stream” media. They tell me I don’t need to wear a mask. One man accused me of needlessly inciting panic by wearing a face mask in public spaces. On Memorial Day, the president criticized others for wearing face masks in public. I have to be honest with you; such comments are straining my ability to practice compassion. I am ashamed to say that I lost my cool on one occasion. Overhearing a couple of old men saying how the Coronavirus was a hoax, a young medical doctor walked over and introduced himself. He explained that the pandemic was real and posed serious threats to health. He told them that the local hospital, the only one within 100 miles, was inundated with patients suffering from Coronavirus. They told him to sit back down and to mind his own business. In his defense, I got up and joined the doctor, trying to explain the dangers rationally. I told them I had researched pandemics assiduously for a book I wrote on the topic. They replied that the president said it was just a regular flu and that a certain drug would make them immune to the virus. The medical doctor and I explained that what they heard was incorrect and that a recent international study involving data from almost 700 hospitals from every continent on Earth (except Antarctica) found that taking the aforementioned drug showed no efficacy against the virus, and that, in fact, taking the unproven drug in any combination significantly increased the likelihood of death among patients. They told us we were a bunch of flaming liberals. Some harsh words were exchanged. I went back to the business the next day and apologized to the employees for my role in the little public spat. At times, I feel like crying out from the mountaintop, “Do you really think the whole world is making up this pandemic just to spite some politician you voted for? Do you really think all those hospital front-line workers are lying about the number of infected they are treating and the lack of PPE? Do you really believe that all those caskets and mass graves are empty?” When pressed, their defense seems to be the old argument: Well, I personally haven’t seen anyone die from it, so it must not be a real danger. It’s all over-rated and blown out of proportion.

Sadly, such comments have been the root and cause of much of the world’s suffering and death. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, once said that it is a lie to say that we learn from history. He believes we are always repeating the same mistakes under the belief, I didn’t see it, or it didn’t happen to me, so it’s not real. Hospital ICU’s are full of folks who believed as such, only to change their tune after they or someone they loved contracted Covid-19 or died from it. From their deathbed, the sick and dying lament, “I should have listened to the warnings. I should have worn a mask.” Only after personally experiencing such suffering or loss, did they acknowledge the danger. It is a pity that our human nature is so egocentric and imprudent.

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A few days ago, I saw an outdoor birthday party for a little girl. None of the attending parents or children wore masks, and the children were doing what little children do: chasing each other around playing tag and talking and laughing, oblivious to the danger of transmitting the virus. No one was exercising social distancing. We have now learned from data shared from doctors and hospitals around the world that children are not immune to Covid-19 as originally and erroneously thought when data first came trickling in.

And during this Memorial Day Weekend, the news was full of reports of folks cramming together on beaches, in bars, and at pool parties like the now-infamous photo below in the lake of the Ozarks, a three hour drive south of where I live in Missouri. Not a single person was wearing a mask. When asked why they were blatantly violating guidelines to avoid gatherings of more than ten people, some partiers claimed that the sun would kill the virus, which is incorrect. Sunlight radiation kills the virus on surfaces over time, but the aerosol droplets that we all spray when we talk, cough, sneeze, or laugh takes only seconds to transmit to people nearby. I imagine that folks had to shout at one another to communicate above the din of the pool party, in many cases, showering each other with aerosol particles of Covid-19. The repercussions will be obvious in a week or ten days as spikes of Coronavirus will be reported everywhere and contact-tracing will lead back to these ill-advised events. The individuals attending these overcrowded events may not care to protect themselves, but how many people will get sick and die because they later transmit the virus to others who took precautionary steps to protect themselves and their families by choosing to avoid such events?

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I can’t help but wonder what history books in the future will say about this time, when so much suffering and loss could have been avoided by the simple and inexpensive practices of wearing a face mask, washing hands often, and social-distancing from others, and certainly by not flouting health guidelines that cautioned strongly against attending events of more than ten people, and even then to maintain social distancing of six to eight feet. What will the history books say about the selfishness of folks who protest and violate practical health measures designed to save lives because they claim that the measures violate their right to get their hair cut or permed or to party? Are we that self-centered?
They say during a pandemic that we are all in this together. But we are only in this together when we exercise concern and compassion for the safety and well-being of others. We are only as strong as our weakest link.


JS with maskDr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion, the world’s most comprehensive compassion movement. Aside from a PhD, he earned a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Study in Healthcare Administration from the Texas A&M University System. He was Director of Health Education at Southcentral Foundation, part of the Alaska Native Medical Center complex in Anchorage, Alaska—one of the world’s preeminent institutions for indigenous healthcare. Dr. Smelcer is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, his timely new pocketbook of sayings to inspire compassion, hope, mercy, charity, tolerance, contemplation, peace, and the spiritual life. His novel The Great Death is about the devastating effects of the 1918 Spanish Flu on Alaska Native communities.

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