Anger and disappointment comes in many forms and it washes over us for a variety of reasons. For the better part of 18 months, all of us have been wrestling with COVID in some capacity or another. Through it all, I have been reluctant to allow anger, or even anxiety to cloud my judgement or negatively impact how I view others in our community. I have tried to understand those who choose not to get vaccinated and I have routinely attempted to understand the arguments of those who choose not to wear a mask. I have heard all the arguments, the mincing of words, the overly dramatic proclamations, the threats, the shouting and even the hexes. I have heard the claims that mask wearing is unconstitutional or that the vaccine is ineffective, tainted or part of a larger government conspiracy to control us.
I’ve sat in public meeting after public meeting and listened to adults who, 18 months ago, had literally no idea what COVID even was, yet today they are infectious disease experts, conspiracy theorists, constitutional scholars and child psychologists.
Today was the day true anger and disappointment set in for me. While listening to the morning news, I heard a 46-year-old veteran died while waiting for treatment in Bellville, Texas. He served our country honorably, fought enemies abroad, yet he lay vulnerable in a U.S. hospital with life-threatening gallstone pancreatitis because hospitals in and around Bellville are so overwhelmed with COVID patients, there are no available beds.
After seven hours, and several calls to other hospitals in the Houston area, it was too late. Daniel Wilkinson, who served two tours in Afghanistan and was awarded a Purple Heart, died before he could get the care he needed. He should not have died the way he did in the manner in which he did. We can debate whether masks work or whether vaccines are safe, but we cannot debate the obvious, which is that COVID numbers are increasing in many places across the United States. We cannot debate that our frontline medical professionals are overwhelmed. We cannot debate that despite being exhausted mentally and physically, medical professionals continue to serve both vaccinated and unvaccinated, as well as those who choose not to regularly wear a mask. We cannot debate that some who oppose mask-wearing or the vaccine have verbally abused, spit on, pushed and shoved medical professionals in our very own city.
The emergency rooms here in Charleston are not at capacity yet, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a moral and patriotic responsibility to try and keep all Americans safe regardless of where they live. We are all Americans. Yet sadly, conversations around masks and vaccines have become so heated and so divisive that people want to physically harm other people.
The point of this commentary is not to pit one group against the other, because as I have noted, I’ve tried to understand all views on this issue. From a visceral level, I understand wearing a mask is uncomfortable, inconvenient and when worn all day without break (especially if you are a child), is not ideal. Let’s also acknowledge there is no real scientific evidence to suggest wearing a mask in public has any long term negative effects on lung function, lung development or oxygen levels. The overwhelming body of scientific evidence is clear, yet there are so-called medical experts that point to invalidated studies that suggest otherwise. The unfortunate part is not that these studies and reports exist, rather it’s that some citizens have lost their ability to analyze and synthesize data and are either unwilling or incapable of looking at the source of the data.
Being asked to wear a face mask during a pandemic is not having one’s rights trampled on by tyrannical politicians. Wearing a face mask during a pandemic makes you a member of a civil society. Wearing a mask is not tyranny, it is you making a small sacrifice in an attempt to prevent your actions from adversely affecting your neighbors.
Do you want to help keep small businesses open and operating? Do you want to help your child’s school remain open for in person learning? Do you want to protect your child’s teacher and your child’s classmates? Do you want to get back to a normal life where we don’t have to constantly worry about masks and vaccines? Guess what, we can accomplish all of it by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.
If the story about a dying veteran lying helpless in a U.S. hospital waiting for proper treatment and a bed doesn’t give you pause, or doesn’t stir something within you about where we are as a country, then we ought to rethink terms like patriotism, selflessness, community and sacrifice when we describe American exceptionalism. Let’s not mince words. Daniel Wilkinson died because politicians and some in the community have chosen to ignore reality in favor of their own personal self interests. When we look back at this time in our history, how will historians judge us? Did we rise to the occasion as Americans or did we get distracted by our personal feelings about a pandemic that is clearly bigger than all of us?
Jason Sakran represents District 3 as a member of Charleston City Council.