Mask On or Off, Respect Is Key

As masks become optional on campus and individuals decide whether they’ll continue to wear them, we must reject the urge to moralize and instead treat everyone’s decision with respect.

By Eva McCord

Content Warning: Weight loss due to illness.

My twin was just three months out from his initial diagnosis of Crohn’s disease when the pandemic started. In the face of what I can only retrospectively call a “national unraveling,” an abrupt unearthing of the country’s fragility and lack of preparedness in the face of global crisis, I also witnessed Christopher’s own unraveling. By the end of March 2020, my brother was all knuckles, cheekbones, and ribs. With the second semester of my junior year of high school spent behind a computer screen in my childhood bedroom, I passed by what felt like my brother’s ghost on the way to the kitchen, the couch, the stairs. The timing of the pandemic felt like when a pen explodes at the final period of a sentence—a dark spot in the middle of a dark spot.

Two years later, even though he’s regained the weight he’d lost, the infusion treatments that kept my brother alive have effectively destroyed his immune system. This means that for two years, I’ve been scrubbing my palms a little bit longer, layering on one more mask, taking one more rapid test—just to be sure. And it means that, despite our mask-optional campus, I will continue to wear mine. For others with immunocompromised loved ones, the story is largely the same. I implore the UChicago community to take this transition period as an opportunity to extend one another grace above all else, regardless of whose masks are coming off or staying on.

The politicization of the mask has long been discussed—more so than I may be able to personally unpack, let alone concisely summarize—but beneath the surface lies an uncomfortable “moralization” of mask-wearing. Even as someone opting to still wear a mask in the classroom and in buildings for the indefinite future, I’m vehemently against doing so with my chin held high or with a scathing glare at those eager to unmask.

I would also discourage students from absorbing—or rather clinging to—the practice of treating others with respect solely on the basis of not knowing what occurs “behind closed doors.” At the beginning of the pandemic, high school peers would suggest that only my brother and I should be required to quarantine, while life should be allowed to continue as normal beyond the walls and through the windows of our immunocompromised home. At the end of the day, while respect is certainly earned, general human decency need not be predicated on a merit system or the “worthiness”/validity of their personal lives—nor is anyone necessarily obligated to disclose that information.

I sincerely believe in the goodness of people, and that when given a choice to either act in self-interest or with others’ emotions, fears, and perhaps unknown personal circumstances in mind, most people will pick the latter. I also recognize that I don’t need to divorce myself from this belief in order to acknowledge that masking up is a tedious undertaking to maintain when one is no longer under any mandatory obligation to do so. Because what’s perhaps more dangerous than a potential spike in COVID-19 cases is the transformation of actions or choices, made with good intentions, into badges of self-righteous superiority.

Eva McCord is a first-year in the College.