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Susan Kraus: We don’t have years to learn mask lesson

Susan Kraus
Special to Gannett Kansas
Susan Kraus

It is common practice today for newspapers to cite from police reports whether people killed or seriously injured in auto accidents were wearing seatbelts. It’s not like Driving Under the Influence, where the “personal choice” to drive drunk is criminal.

But we share a common-sense perspective that, by not wearing a seatbelt, we’re complicit. We knew the danger, and did it anyway.

When seatbelt regulations were first introduced, people fought them. Despite statistics, absent evidence, people believed that they had a better chance to survive being thrown from their cars than to wear a seatbelt. They also objected to being told what to do.

Daniel Moynihan termed it “the epidemic on the highway.” Elizabeth Dole, transportation secretary in the Reagan Administration, admonished: “Your life is in your hands.”

Today we have a different killer, but the same pushback. In looking at the placards and verbiage, it could be the same battle. “Symbol of Tyranny.” “Don’t Tie Me Down.” “Wearing a ____ Is My Choice.”

But here is the difference: people who choose to not wear a seatbelt usually only hurt or kill themselves. People who choose to not mask can spread a virus that harms or even kills innocent people. So, not masking is more like DUI — except the decision is made cold sober.

Decent, hard-working, caring people — who would never be violent, who shovel the snow on a neighbor’s driveway, coach baseball, volunteer at their church — believe that COVID-19 is a hoax (to what end we’re not clear), statistics are false (those doctors and hospitals are exaggerating, paid to inflate the numbers), and it’s no worse than the flu (so don’t let them scare you).

Deaths from COVID-19 over the past nine months are six to seven times greater than from car accidents in all of 2019. In a few more months, that number will be 10 times greater. So, 10 years of auto deaths will equal one year of COVID-19?

If a “fixable” problem with cars caused so much pain and death, would we just sit and count (or discount) the body bags? No. Loudly, angrily, with placards and marches, we would demand that the problem be fixed.

The fix is in our hands. We can protect ourselves as we also protect our families, friends, neighbors, congregations, the cashier at Casey’s, our teachers, doctors and nurses. This fix requires patriotism that extends beyond waving a flag.

We can still believe whatever we want: COVID-19 is exaggerated hype; numbers are inflated; it’s like the flu. But, just in case the medical experts and epidemiologists are right, just in case we could be spreading this virus even when we don’t feel sick ourselves — and because we’re decent people who would never, ever intentionally hurt or kill someone — we can also mask.

We can do it “just in case.”

Getting people to use seatbelts took decades, marketing campaigns and lots of laws. But accidents had not infected over 12 million of us, killed over 250,000 of us in just months. We don’t have decades. We don’t have months. We barely have weeks.

For the 13,000 people who will die in the next week, hours and minutes are all they have left to count.

Is it that big a sacrifice? Just in case?

Susan Kraus is a Kansas therapist, mediator and writer. During COVID-19, she is working with more families who are now struggling to bridge the deep political divide.