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OPINION

The unmasking of a selfish nation

COVID-19 didn’t change America. It revealed our cruelties and churlishness in a time of unprecedented crisis.

Passengers wearing protective masks onboard a Boeing 737-800 operated by Avelo Airlines ahead of the airline's inaugural flight at Hollywood Burbank Airport in Burbank, California, on Wednesday.Bloomberg/file

A ruling on Monday by a “not qualified” judge appointed by an unqualified president is a bleak reminder that, for many Americans, having to wear a mask occasionally has been the worst thing about the COVID-19 pandemic.

It certainly isn’t the unknown number of people who still struggle with COVID’s lingering effects or the millions of children who lost parents or guardians to the virus. It’s not the thought of those who left this world alone without the final comfort of a loved one’s touch. It’s not the grocery store employees who lost their lives because they didn’t have the luxury of working safely at home.

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Judging from the jubilant reactions posted on social media after airline employees announced mid-flight that passengers were no longer required to wear a mask, they weren’t thinking about the more than 6.2 million people killed by COVID — nearly 990,000 in this nation alone, the highest death toll in the world.

Buoyed by the selfishness that has prolonged this pandemic, they think only of themselves.

Of course, Donald Trump-appointed US District Court Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle’s vexing decision to void the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national mask mandate for public transportation doesn’t affect only air travelers. It also applies on trains, buses, and boats. Uber, the ride-hailing company, won’t require masks for drivers or passengers.

Throwing out the mask mandate reeks of the privilege of someone who doesn’t rely on public transportation. Airplanes may have great ventilation and filtration systems, but the same cannot be said of many subways and buses. On Tuesday the MBTA rescinded its mask mandate for all customers, except users of The RIDE paratransit services.

After Mizelle’s ruling, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said, “This is obviously a disappointing decision.” That’s not much of a response. It makes me wonder if the Biden administration may see the end of this mask mandate, conveniently not by its own hand, as one less political liability to shoulder before the midterm elections. President Biden said Tuesday that it’s “up to” Americans to decide whether they should wear a mask. The Transportation Security Administration had already announced it would no longer enforce the mask mandate.

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“This was a legal decision, not a public health decision, and it was abrupt,” Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, said during a Tuesday segment. “All of a sudden masks came off, families and travelers who were fully anticipating they would still be able to travel in a masked environment suddenly could not. Children under the age of 5 who’ve not been able to be vaccinated — again, feeling more comfortable in a masked environment — suddenly were not in a masked environment.”

All of this is happening as BA.2, an even more transmissible Omicron subvariant, is causing COVID infections to rise again. Vaccinations have stalled. There are about 40,000 new cases a day, and it’s probably higher, since people generally do not report home test results. Between 400 and 500 people die every day. Such numbers aren’t as dire as those during the height of the Delta and Omicron waves, but it still means that thousands continue to die from COVID each week.

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As a nation, Americans never nailed the whole “we’re in this together” thing during this ongoing pandemic. The greatest public health crisis of our lifetime has often been met with indifference, and not just by Trump, who labeled himself “a wartime president” but was really COVID’s accomplice. While refrigerated trucks were parked outside of hospitals as mobile morgues to accommodate the overwhelming number of COVID deaths, some preferred to burn masks to protest pandemic restrictions.

In this May 6, 2020, file photo, the Statue of Liberty is visible above refrigerated trucks intended for storing corpses that are staged in a lot at the 39th Street pier, in Brooklyn. New York City continued to use refrigerated trucks to store bodies of coronavirus victims more than a year after they were first set up as temporary morgues.Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

Once headlines verified what many of us anticipated — that COVID, enabled by systemic and institutional racism, would have a disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities — scores of white people, some of them armed, took to the streets and state houses for raucous anti-lockdown tantrums.

People went from cheering health care workers to cheering the fact that they would no longer have to use one of the most effective mitigation devices during this pandemic. That puts the elderly, immunocompromised, and children too young to be vaccinated at risk. What’s being hailed as a victory for independence and personal choice feels like surrender.

I haven’t been on a plane since March 2020. I had the middle seat, wedged between an open-mouth snorer and a woman who coughed most of the trip from Charleston, S.C., to Boston. No one on the flight wore a mask because few recognized COVID as a threat. Now we know better — or should — and many will still be happily unmasked on public transportation. I won’t be one of them.

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During these past two unprecedented years, I’ve often thought about something Michelle Obama said: “Being president doesn’t change who you are. It reveals who you are.” That can also be applied to how this nation has handled the pandemic. The COVID crisis has not changed America, but revealed its churlishness and cruelties, both unchecked and now unmasked.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.