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Ben Fields

Ben Fields

I was coming out of one of the big box stores the other day, passing the line of people waiting to get inside. Right as I was exiting, a security guard motioned to a man coming into the store. The gesture was obvious. “Mask up.” The man burst into a short, mostly incoherent tirade on the tyranny of having to wear a mask during the coronavirus pandemic. Then he covered his face.

That hit me as odd. The guy came in with a mask in his hand. He knew he was going to be told to wear it. So what was the point? Did he just need to blow up at someone over this whole coronavirus thing? Did he have someone nearby with an iPhone camera rolling? Maybe, before leaving his home, he told himself, “This is the day I take a stand, but, just in case, I’d better bring my mask. I still need to get milk.”

In a neighboring state, a good friend of mine and his wife are staying in different parts of their house. Unfortunately, it’s not one of those “This is my side of the house” plots that play out in sitcoms. No, his wife is quarantining because, even though she wore a mask every day to her job (deemed essential), a few of her co-workers didn’t, despite business protocols. Those co-workers tested positive for COVID-19, and now she is confined to a bedroom. She and her husband are nervous wrecks, awaiting the results of her test.

Meanwhile, I watch debates rage on social media over this whole issue. Some question public health officials and point to so-called experts who profess, despite about 150,000 deaths in America, and those surviving COVID-19 dealing with sometimes severe post-illness problems, that everything is fine.

I’ve had more than one person tell me, “Well, I like what they have to say, because it’s optimistic.” I’ve got no problem with optimism, but sometimes realism needs to prevail.

I could stand on a freeway in the path of a tractor-trailer with its brakes out and say, “This semi isn’t going to hit me.” I’m optimistic, but the reality of the situation doesn’t bend to my perception. Perception can go a long way, but there are certain truths — scientific or otherwise — that aren’t negotiable. Gravity doesn’t care if I think I can fly after launching myself off a ladder.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think people should question what they’re told by their government or public health officials. But to turn to quacks with seemingly easy answers isn’t the proper recourse. If you want the truth, you have to accept it’s not always going to match up with what you want to hear.

But what really bugs me is that this is such a small ask of us as Americans. Wearing masks in public places to slow the spread of a terrible disease should be something we can do with little fuss. I think about our predecessors who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, and all the sacrifices they made, not just in combat, but here at home, because it was what their nation asked of them and the right thing to do.

Sure, there were probably people back then refusing to ration tin because they thought the government was hoarding it to plant radio antennae in cavity fillings. And we know a small number of Americans during that time were Nazi sympathizers. But those folks didn’t have Twitter accounts or their own podcast.

Despite whatever divisions there might have been, we look back at that time and the trials those people were put through, and we dub them the Greatest Generation.

What we’re going through now is a historical event. People will study this time for years, marking it as a moment when not only the country, but the world changed. It will be footnote in everything. “Of course, there was no NCAA basketball champion back in 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” a broadcaster will say while calling a game 30 years later. And what dreadful statistics regarding deaths, illnesses and the like will follow?

I feel like we’re failing the test of our time. I know that everything about what is going on right now is frustrating. Living through a historically awful time is not a lot of fun. It’s hard to comprehend the scope of what we’re going through, and it’s even harder when the enemy isn’t a terrorist cell or foreign army, but invisible microbes traveling in droplets from the nose.

It’s difficult when it gets politicized and messages get mixed. Neighbors end up arguing with neighbors, old friends are torn apart or a guy loses his temper on a stranger in a store, all over an ideological wedge that is completely unnecessary.

We have to get past that. It’s our time to step up. I want myself, my family and my fellow Americans to be protected when out in public, in a church, a crowded store or indoors, in a space where social distancing isn’t possible. We can ditch all of this pointless and divisive bickering by reminding ourselves that lives are on the line and truly accepting the weight of that.

Let’s come together for ourselves, our families and our country. Let’s pass this test. Mask up.

Ben Fields is the Gazette-Mail opinion editor. Reach him at ben.fields@wvgazettemail.com or follow @BenFieldsWV on Twitter.