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Following The COVID guidelines?

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

So here’s a sticky thing…

This pandemic began in the US as a public health crisis, but has become a controversial political issue/morally-loaded choose-your-own-adventure shit show.

Everyone has a different perception of reality right now, based a bit on where they live, and a lot on where they get their news, at a time when a lot is riding on what we believe and what decisions we make.

How bad is this coronavirus, really? Since we’ve been given no coherent guidance, and what each person considers a credible or corrupt source of information right now varies dramatically, we’re left to kind of just feel our way through that question and hope we make the right call.

When I asked on Instagram where they were at in terms of following or bending the guidelines about masks, staying six feet apart, and hand-washing, hundreds of people responded, and I noticed a few patterns emerge.

  1. Nearly everyone considers their personal level of risk tolerance to be reasonable and cautious, and feel anything from confusion to disdain about those with a higher risk tolerance, or those making different exceptions or cutting different corners. This was true despite the fact that the details of that risk tolerance varied dramatically from person to person.

  2. A lot of folks seemed to agree that the moralistic judging and politically divisive energy around this topic makes them uncomfortable, and wished we could just focus on doing our best and being kind to others.

  3. Everyone seems super jumpy, judged, and judgmental about this.

I asked the question which led to this bread feedback after having spent the entire quarantine up til now in a tiny town in North Carolina with my family, from where the pandemic seemed dangerous but reasonably far off… and then coming back to Los Angeles to figure out what to do with my apartment, my boyfriend, and my life.

The actual COVID guidelines for both travel and life in LA have seemed pretty unclear to me, which has caused me to feel stressed in general, and also led to tension between my boyfriend and I, because we each have a different interpretation of them.

  1. Are you supposed to self-isolate for ten days, or fourteen after you travel?

  2. If you’re supposed to wear a mask at the airport why are so many people mask-free, and how big of a deal is it to take off the mask to eat and drink?

  3. Why was the plane so crowded when they said they were “making every attempt to follow social distancing guidelines?

  4. Are we allowed to see our friends if we stay six feet apart and wear masks, or are we supposed to literally just stay home?

  5. Am I supposed to wear my mask while walking outside? Is it different if I’m running?

It’s distressing to have such a lack of clarity around questions like this for me, and it seems I’m not alone. I like knowing what the rules are, even if I choose to consciously break them. (Ex: I know j-walking is illegal, but I still do it.)

I don’t, however, like breaking rules I didn’t even realize were rules, as that’s a recipe for shame and guilt and other yucky feelings, and in this case it’s also potentially dangerous for myself and others. And I don’t especially like following rules “just to be safe” if they’re pointless or optional. (Ex: we all learned to always pee after sex to avoid UTIs, but you know what? Sometimes I roll the dice on that one, and I’ve been just fine.)

That’s the tricky thing about the pandemic guidelines, though. Some people believe they’re following the guidelines to a T while still going on social distancing dates and friend hangs, because they stay six feet apart and wear masks, and others believe those people are selfish assholes who need to just stay the fuck home.

Which really brings me to my point. Because while I find the lack of clarity around this whole thing utterly disconcerting, that’s nothing compared to the way it’s become a topic riddled with judgment and high horses.

After reading hundreds of responses, I keep thinking about the old adage about driving. Everyone thinks they’re going a reasonable speed (even when they’re speeding), but that anyone doing faster than that is “crazy,” while anyone going slower than that is an “asshole.”

Basically, people with a high risk tolerance than you are selfish assholes, and people with a lower risk tolerance are overly anxious.

Personally as a lover of complete bodily autonomy and agency over one’s choices, the questions of following these guidelines presents an interesting dichotomy. Generally speaking, I’m all for “take whatever risks you want unless they endanger other people,” which is why I don’t get upset about people who choose to bungee jump, but I do get upset about people who choose to drink and drive. I don’t judge someone for having unprotected sex, but I do judge anyone who wouldn’t disclose the fact that they have an STI, or who lies about wearing protection.

And actually, this analogy holds true with regard to the guidelines. The question of mask-wearing is a lot like the question of condom-wearing, in that we all know it’s safer to wear them and many people don’t anyway.

The big difference between not wearing a condom and not wearing a mask, however, is that there’s no opportunity for all the people around you to consent to the risk of you not wearing one.

Deciding to go in for a hug, or hang out unmasked, with a friend who has also been quarantining feels equivalent to knowingly being STI free before engaging in consensual unprotected sex with someone else who is on board for that risk. Everyone is informed and gives consent and while there’s still some risk, it’s relatively low.

But entering someone else’s space on the sidewalk, or going into a grocery store unmasked, feels much more like ditching the condom without finding out your status, or getting consent. Which as this analogy demonstrates, is pretty fucked up.

It’s no wonder people are pissed.

From what I understand, the whole mask thing really isn’t about protecting you, it’s about protecting the people around you from you, in case you’re an unknown or asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19. And likewise, other people wearing a mask isn’t about them protecting themselves, it’s about them protecting you.

So following the guidelines, and especially the mask-wearing one, isn’t actually about taking calculated personal risks. It’s more like drunk driving than bungee jumping, as far as the risk that comes with it, because the threat of endangering someone else is actually higher than the threat of endangering yourself.

Which is kind of the problem.

Because really, as a culture, thinking about other people is not something we do well.

We have been so trained to view ourselves as individuals instead of a collective, that a lot of people view wearing a mask as an infringement on their personal rights instead of an act of collective kindness.

I even had a few people respond to my query by saying they think wearing a mask is good for other people but bad for the wearer (due to recycled CO2 and restricted oxygen, I believe), and that perhaps it’s selfish, but they need to look out for their own health first.

This is where the political divide and moralizing comes in, and why so many people are heated right now. It’s a question of me versus us, and that’s exactly what our country is grappling with at the moment.

On the one side we’ve got a political party who is focused on our communal and collective well-being, and on the other side we’ve got a political party who is focused on our individual rights. The popularity of Bernie Sanders highlights this exact issue, since he would be considered a political centrist in the context of the wider world, but is considered an extreme left-wing socialist by many folks in the country.

My rights versus our ability to collectively thrive. This is the backdrop upon which COVID-19 has bloomed.

As a person who identifies as selfish, and finds it much easier to think about myself than others, I assure you I am on no moral high-ground here. It’s hard to maintain vigilance during such a long slog of endless stress, and while I get that personal vigilance supports collective success, I also understand why people are cutting corners and making exceptions to the rules.

The truth is that this is fucking hard, and it’s easier to emotionally disconnect from the collective sometimes than to live with it hanging over us. It’s a lot to handle, thinking we might kill someone’s grandma every time we forget to sanitize our groceries, or wash our hands for only fifteen seconds.

We are imperfect. We are human. We are doing our best. Sometimes we have to reach deeper to give a better version of our best, and sometimes we have to offer ourselves (and others) grace and compassion for the ways in which we (and they) go adrift.

<3 Jessi

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