A dear high school friend makes a Facebook dare: Post a picture of yourself in a mask. Her smiling eyes peer over her navy blue, star-studded mask, her head wrapped in a scarf. She is currently undergoing chemotherapy but her spirit sparkles.
I scroll down. There are men and women, all of a certain age, some with masks improvised from scarfs, most homemade. We were very young adults that first Earth Day 1970, and now we are of that group they say are most at risk should we contract the virus. We are told masks are less about self-protection than the protection of others. Worldwide, people are covering noses and mouths to protect others, and in the process, protecting themselves from the spread of infection.
Coronavirus has done for the world what nothing else could have. For a while, it has crossed political divides and united us in our will to keep alive. A chorus of health professionals’ faces just off duty from crowded ICU units, all with painful mask-marked indentations, greet us between verses of newscasts as we witness the sacrifice of those dedicated to our care. Our job, they say? Stay home. We watch the impact of staying home on cases reported, the flattening of the curves of infection.
I love to hear the positive side of this staying-home on our environment. The atmosphere is cleaner than it has been in decades in many areas. CO2 levels over our cities have dropped. The skies are bluer; the freeways, quieter. Can we keep this going as our economy recovers? On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for the world to respond to the current coronavirus crisis in ways that also solve [his word] the climate crisis. He lists six steps to this end, including funding green jobs in recovery packages instead of subsidizing the fossil fuel industries.
I did post a picture of myself in a mask I got in 2017 during the California fires. I suspect that washable mask and I are going to see a lot of each other in the days, weeks, and months ahead. I grow fonder of it when I remember its function. Yes, it’s harder to breathe wearing it, but it also protects others, should I become unknowingly infected. Maybe masks carry not only a concrete function but also a symbolic one, an attitude that may save us. Caring for the other, whether that be another human or the environment, is our own best hope of survival. Maybe the mask is also our best symbol for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day 2020.