by John Ellis
While his novel The Plague has been studiously read for over half a century, Camus’ prophetic parable has taken on extra resonance these last few months. In the book, the plague haunting the Algerian town of Oren is Camus’ metaphor for his belief that we live in the absurd situation of waiting for death to claim us, and, make no mistake, death will eventually claim each and every one of us. Front and center in the book is the thematic claim that no matter how much we believe otherwise, none of us have any say in our destiny. For the atheist Camus the reality of death meant that the absurdity of life is a given. Our responses to that given – the absurd – is what interested the great French writer. Do we live in denial? Do we engage in fruitless escape attempts? Do we resign ourselves to our fate and allow the absurdity of living merely to die shape us? Like the character Cottard, do we nihilistically embrace it, finding ways to serve self even as others suffer? Or like the calm Dr. Rieux, do we stoically accept it and go about the business of doing our best to ease the sufferings and fears of others? Perhaps even better, like Rieux’s friend and aid Tarrou, will we go down swinging, refusing to be cowed into either terror or resignation in our pursuit of becoming a saint without God?
The novel is proving sadly prophetic for many professing Christians in 2020. Living through our own “plague,” many of us have had our heart’s desires and idols revealed; large swaths of Christianity in America have been exposed as only having ever given nothing more than lip-service to an eschatological perspective shaped by Kingdom ethics. Instead of denouncing the absurd as the shadow of the Tower of Babel, we have embraced it and are living for self. Truly, the church in America is composed of far more tares than wheat. Is there doubt any longer? But I’m getting ahead of myself. And in the issue of full disclosure, I should introduce myself.
I am a middle-aged man with a heart condition and hereditary high blood pressure. Usually, my heart condition is something I think little about. My cardiologist recommended monitoring it every year and told me what symptoms to be on the lookout for that will signal that it’s worsening and needs medical care. Other than that, as long as I watch my weight and diet, I should be fine. So, over the years, minus an overly exuberant urgent care doctor who convinced me that I needed an immediate heart transplant only to be told by the E.R. doctor eight hours and a battery of expensive tests later that I was fine, I almost never think about my heart. Until COVID-19, that is.
Based on what’s been discovered about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, I’m assuming that I’m likely toast if I get it. Now, since I’m not a fatalist, I’m doing what I can to ensure that my body has the best chance possible if I do contract the virus. I’m being more diligent about my diet, especially my sodium intake, and making sure that I’m eating lots of vitamin rich foods that will strengthen my immune system. Likewise, over the last four months, I’ve been far more disciplined in engaging in heart and lung healthy exercises on a regular basis. I also do my best to stay abreast of the latest research and recommendations by epidemiologists and other experts. To that end, my family practices social distancing, we wash our hands religiously, and we wear masks whenever we are out and about, which is not very often. However, many of those things are now societal and political dividing lines, especially the wearing of masks. As one headline sardonically puts it, “Wearing a mask is for smug liberals. Refusing to is for reckless Republicans.”
If only things were that simple; if only we could laugh off the debate as hyperbolic virtue signaling from both sides. Most likely by the time you read this, though, we will have tragically raced past the 100,000 mark in this country’s fatality count. Paying attention to the research and data that is growing in availability combined with the experts’ recommendations make it clear that masks are a low cost/high reward option that will greatly reduce the spread of the coronavirus if everyone wears one. Sure, some exhibit smugness behind their mask. Likewise, there is an aspect of recklessness associated with many who refuse to wear a mask. However, both smugness and recklessness are tangential to the ideologies driving both choices. Before mounting my steed to take on that windmill, an attack that I will commence in Part 2, I want to lay out the science behind wearing a mask as best I can.
Many people, on both sides, seem to ignore the “novel” part in novel coronavirus. While there are other coronaviruses, this one – the one that produces COVID-19 – is new. Since it’s new, it stands to reason that as the research expands and deepens as time goes on, and as more data becomes available, the picture becomes clearer and epidemiologists, other viral infectious experts, and medical professionals are going to evolve in their understanding of it and, hence, in their recommendations. It also stands to reason that there is still much we don’t know about Covid-19 (and by “we,” I mean the experts, not me and, most likely, not you, unless you’re an epidemiologist). For example, a mysterious illness that researchers are calling a multisystem inflammatory syndrome that is believed to be associated with COVID-19 is sickening a growing number of children and has killed some of them. So, for those of you who want schools to open up with next to zero social distancing protocols, do you really know what you’re asking for? Maybe, by God’s grace, researchers and medical professionals will get a handle on this new illness afflicting youth and find a legitimate therapeutic by the start of the fall semester and it won’t be an issue. But, that’s not a given, at all.
By way of another example, were you aware that the U.S. military is considering not accepting new recruits who have recovered from COVID-19? Do you know why? Because, since this is new, we, or, rather, the experts do not know the long-term effects that Covid-19 will have on those who recover from it, even for those who had mild symptoms. For all we know, everyone who had it may drop dead in ten years. Not likely, but we don’t know in the fullest sense of the word “know.” Or, more likely, people who have had Covid-19 will have reduced lung capacity and will be at a higher risk for things like heart and kidney failure. Or, again by God’s grace, there may be no long-term effects. As of now, we simply do not know. But people want to gamble with it, nonetheless.
The wearing of masks has also been a victim of the misunderstanding of the novel part of this. At the beginning, it was believed and touted that only symptomatic people spread the virus. At the time, researchers and medical policy advisors were going on the information they had, which was not much. Ergo, the initial recommendations were that only those who were symptomatic should wear a mask. At the time, combing through the research and listening to the experts, I couldn’t help but wonder why the rest of us shouldn’t wear masks, too. I mean, if the mask on the symptomatic person helps protect me from their sneezes and coughs, shouldn’t the same mask on me offer me some level of protection, too? Turns out, I was right. It also turns out that organizations like the CDC also knew that well before they changed the recommendation. Since the very real fear existed that those on the front lines would quickly run out of masks and other PPE, the recommendations were anemic and not based on the science. A fact that is well established, but it’s common to run across antimaskers who bluster that “the CDC doesn’t know what they’re doing because they keep changing their minds.”
The question that should be asked, of course, is why did the CDC, and others, change their recommendations? Again, I caution all to wrap your arms around the “novel” part of this coronavirus and listen to the actual experts and not your favorite news pundit nor politician and, most definitely, do not listen to conspiracy theory-tinged ramblings found in random YouTube videos or on alt-right websites. And the experts are clear: wearing masks will greatly reduce the R0 of the coronavirus, helping buy time before a vaccine is developed and produced, and allow much of society to open up.
Ironically, I discovered this preprint via an antimask zealot screaming on Twitter that science proves that masks are not only ineffective but also harmful. Since the study he shared states the exact opposite, I’m not sure if the individual is simply too stupid to understand the preprint or is a promask zealot who wrote the Tweet in order to trick antimaskers into reading a study that disproves their claims. Regardless, the important part of the study’s conclusion is, “The study suggests that community mask use by well people could be beneficial, particularly for COVID-19, where transmission may be pre-symptomatic.”
Now, that preprint is dated April 30, and, if you click on the link to it that I provided above, you’ll also notice a disclaimer at the top of the page that reads, “COVID-19 is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation.” In other words, as more data is collected and researched, expect changes. Since April 30, the new data and subsequent research removes the qualifier of “could be” and replaces it with “most likely is beneficial.”In a more recent study, “Hong Kong scientists conducting research on hamsters have offered the first proof of what many residents have believed all along – that wearing surgical masks can significantly reduce the rate of airborne COVID-19 transmission.” The study concludes that the rate of transmission can be reduced by 50% if everyone were to wear masks. And if you understand how R0 works, a 50% reduction at the current estimate of an R0 of 1.95 in the U.S. would drop the R0 below 1, effectively pushing the virus to die out on its own until a vaccine is developed and produced (and for you antimaskers who are hung up on “surgical masks,” hang on, I’ll speak to that in short order).
Adding to that, the Mayo Clinic emphatically insists, “Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease.” The Mayo Clinic then asks the question that many people have about why face masks weren’t recommended from the get-go. Thankfully, the researchers provide an answer:
At the time, experts didn’t yet know the extent to which people with COVID-19 could spread the virus before symptoms appeared. Nor was it known that some people have COVID-19 but don’t have any symptoms. Both groups can unknowingly spread the virus to others.
These discoveries led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to do an about-face on face masks. The CDC updated its guidance to recommend widespread use of simple cloth face coverings to help prevent transmission of COVID-19 by people who have the virus but don’t know it.
None of this, of course, answers all of our questions, nor does it provide definitive proof for how effective facemasks are nor to what levels different types of mask provide protection. I’ve read some studies that posit if everyone wears face masks, the R0 could be cut by as much as 80%. One thing that epidemiologists and researchers are getting a better handle on is the claim from this study that, “These observations confirm that there is a substantial probability that normal speaking causes airborne virus transmission in confined environments.”
It seems like every day now, a new preprint is published adding to the confirmation that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spread mainly through prolonged contact to infected individuals who are spreading droplets through speaking or singing. Likewise, as the data becomes clearer, researchers are becoming more confident approaching certainty that the virus is mainly spread via super-spreader events that, by and large, have the common variables of close quarters, large groups, and sustained speaking and/or singing. As Adam Kucharski, speaking for theCentre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases COVID-19 Working Group, states, “Probably about 10% of cases lead to 80% of the spread.”
All of this amounts to good news. With the preponderance of evidence that the virus is mainly spread through droplets in the air combined with the growing data demonstrating the efficacy of certain types of cloth masks, this means that it is possible for much of society to safely open. But, and herein lies the rub, the safely part is determinate upon wearing masks, avoiding large gatherings, especially indoors, and being cognizant of social distancing as best we can while shopping, at work, or engaging in forms of entertainment. It also requires being aware that the “6 foot” rule is ineffective while engaged in high-risk activities, like singing.
There are rejoinders, of course. Some downright silly. Some scarily steeped in the most nonsensical of conspiracy theories. Some reveal a worship of liberty over life. Not only is it not possible for me to interact with every pushback on my claim, I don’t want to. I’ll limit it to interacting with three of the main arguments against masks I’ve come across. The fourth requires me delving into political theory and theology, a topic I’m reserving for part 2.
About a week ago, the website I used to work for published an article warning that wearing masks not only doesn’t help stop the spread but is dangerous for those who wear masks (minus hospital workers, I’m assuming – because, as we all know, hospital workers have special lungs that are immune to the ill-effects of masks). The article was based off another article – an op-ed written by a neurosurgeon published by another alt-right conspiracy theory site. To that, I say, look to epistemology. If that’s not helpful, think of it this way: Imagine that you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and your oncologist says, “This is what you need to do to fight your cancer.” After you tell your podiatrist what your oncologist said, your podiatrist counters, “No, that’s all wrong. Do this instead if you want to beat cancer.” One would hope that you would ignore your podiatrist and follow the course of action prescribed by your oncologist. My point? Random neurosurgeons published by alt-right conspiracy theory sites do not balance out the epistemic scales of the scores of epidemiologists screaming, “WEAR A MASK!”
The second rebuttal is akin to the first, but with even less credibility. Famous preachers (famous among conservative evangelicals, at least) have been busy on Twitter spreading the notion that face masks are petri dishes that become soaked with all manner of viruses and bacteria that will cause far more harm than good. … How to put this nicely? … If you don’t see the problem with that line of thinking, as in the solution, I don’t know if I have any respect for your intellect. That’s harsh, I know. But, I mean, come on.
The third objection is about the types of masks worn. As noted above, no doubt there are readers who yelled “Aha!” at the words “surgical masks” included in the quote pulled from the study conducted regarding the efficacy of masks. It’s true that not all masks are created equal. But two things can be true at once, and it’s also true that the CDC, among others, says that any type of cotton face covering lowers the risk, at least a little. What’s more, hand-made face masks that are effective are not difficult to find. My wife researched masks and found a pattern to make masks that are a triple-layer of cotton (a certain type of cotton with a high thread count) and have a pocket to insert coffee filters (I’m linking to this study again because it provides helpful information and data about the best types of material with which to make homemade masks). While not 100% as effective as N95 masks, the masks my wife makes are a close approximation to the level of protection provided by N95 masks, somewhere between 80-90%. If you are a real-life friend of mine and want a mask, let me know; my wife will make you one for five bucks (and if you can’t afford the five bucks, she’ll make you one for free). If you don’t know me in real-life and want one, also let me know. Depending on how busy she is, she may make one for you, too. If not, there are plenty of people on Facebook and Pinterest and everywhere else social media gatherings are held who are making and selling the same type of masks.
Look, I could provide links to a plethora of preprints and articles in medical journal demonstrating the veracity of my claim. On Twitter, I even follow an infectious disease expert whose primary work is in helping architects and engineers understand how viruses are spread through buildings via the poor ventilation of climate control systems. A job I didn’t even know existed prior to all this. Over the last two months, I’ve read more medical journals, preprints, and articles written by epidemiologists and viral infectious experts than I’ve ever wanted. As I confessed to my wife, though, I’m not sure what the right balance is between overwhelming readers with data and links to boring, technical preprints and articles and demonstrating that the research and data overwhelmingly supports the claim that wearing masks is a low cost yet high benefit part of the solution to protecting as many people as possible while also opening the economy back up. At this point, and to be blunt, I’m beyond exacerbated at the number of people I know who dismiss the efficacy of masks or who flat out refuse to wear one owing to their “liberty.” Frankly, whenever I hear someone say that they won’t wear a mask, I hear, as someone who is high risk, “Sorry, John, I don’t care if you die. I’m not going to surrender my ‘liberty’ to not wear a mask.” If nothing else, this pandemic has shown me that I have far fewer friends than I previously believed.
Bringing shame down on Christ’s Church in this country, it appears that much of the antimask, anti-social distancing crowd is made up of conservative evangelicals. That’s true from what I’ve seen online and heard from others, at least. Ironically and sadly, on the flip side it appears that many non-Christians have been existentially training for the Time of the Coronavirus their whole life. They’ve come to terms with what they believe is the futility of life and, like Tarrou, go about the business of attempting to become saints without God. While it’s not possible to become a saint without God, common grace is a very real thing, after all. Consequently, as a whole, I feel better loved by non-Christians than by many of my supposed brothers and sisters in Christ. Many professing Christians when faced with the absurd have revealed that their house of faith is built on sand. This is seen in their self-serving responses. As Tarrou sarcastically scolds, “For the plague-stricken their peace of mind is more important than a human life.”
With all due respect to Brett McCracken and TGC, wearing a mask is not a Romans 14 issue; this is not an issue of Christian liberty. Refusing to wear a mask not only endangers the lives of those who are at risk, it also effectively pushes us into a form of exile. There are ways to safely open back up, including physical gatherings of churches (if you don’t click on any other link I’ve provided, please click on this link to an article in CT written by a Christian epidemiologist about how churches can safely reopen), but the unwillingness to wear masks not only communicates that the individual cares more about their comfort and liberty than they do those who are high risk, it also means that we who are high risk are denied the opportunity to join in the physical gathering of our churches. We are being told that our presence at the corporate worship is less important than the “right” to not take the steps that would lower the risk enough to allow us to come to church. That’s not Christian liberty; that’s a flat-out rejection of Kingdom ethics. An unwillingness to wear a mask not only reveals idols in the individual’s heart but also betrays the self-serving belief that obeying Jesus is optional.
If my tone hasn’t already given it away, I’m angry and hurt. It’s not easy reading and hearing the words of those whom I thought were my friends express their intention to cling with all their might to their “right” to not wear a mask, no matter how much it may cost me. It’s not fun seeing which of my friends likes and/or shares articles and Tweets expressing the sentiment that most of the dead were high-risk anyway and weren’t worthy of surrendering our liberty for. And I’m not alone in my anger, hurt, and discouragement. I’ve heard from others who are high risk and are also confused and hurt by their family members’, friends’, and church members’ calloused dismissal of those who are high risk.
So, to pastors, I plead, brothers, be courageous. I empathize, I really do. I know that if you implement policies that protect the flock at a level that allows the vulnerable to join in the physical gathering, you will be inundated with angry emails, phone calls, and face-to-face denunciations. You will be called a leftist, a socialist, and accused of virtue signaling to appease cowards who hate America (ironically, you will also be accused of catering to those who are sheep). I understand that you will be faced with the very real chance that angry members will leave. I understand; I do. But you are called to love, serve, and lead in ways that reflect Jesus’ command that no one be denied access to him. It’s funny, over the last two months, much has been made, and rightly so, of the differences between virtual gatherings versus physical gatherings. The question of whether or not virtual gatherings obeys Hebrews 10 has been debated. Even among those who are more comfortable allowing for virtual gatherings to be counted as an actual gathering, I don’t know of a single pastor who hasn’t expressed the truth that gathering physically is the ideal. Yet, now, I’m being told that while others gather physically, it’s okay for me to continue gathering virtually even though there are policies that could be implemented that would allow me to physically join with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
To my brothers and sisters in Christ, I ask, how does clinging to your liberty to not wear a mask reflect Jesus’ command to love your neighbor and to serve the vulnerable? Have you considered how those who are high risk hear you when you say that you’re not going to wear a mask? Have you weighed your current ethics in the balance of Christ’s ethics? I ask because, frankly, there is much more at stake than my feelings or even my life. Your soul may be at stake and the reputation of Christ’s Church in this country is most definitely at stake.
The Bible makes it very plain that by our fruit people will know if we are Christ’s or not. And the fruit of the Spirit is love – a willingness to consider others before yourself. The phrase “give me liberty or give me death” is the antithesis of that. Enlightenment definitions of liberty and freedom should not be the driving force behind our ethics. Sadly, though, as unbelievers watch, much of the church in America is willfully exposing Herself as a product of the Enlightenment and that She worships self-serving idols rather than Jesus. Like Cottard in The Plague, many professing Christians are finding salvation in a self-serving nihilist embrace of the absurd. But that’s the windmill I want to take on in Part 2.
 I shouldn’t need to explain this, but the 19 in Covid-19 stands for 2019, the year it was discovered, not because this is the 19th version of this. Stupidly beyond stupidly, I’ve seen Presidential advisors, FOX News talking heads, and people I know complain, “There have already been 18 of these. How come Obama didn’t find a cure?” Seriously. People believe that and say that.
 Look, while I do no believe, at all, that this was an act of bioterrorism gone wrong, the fact remains that the Chinese government screwed the pooch, so to speak. Which, if you understand how the Chinese government operates, shouldn’t surprise you. Information and data that could have helped in the prevention of the spread of this was suppressed. That being said, based on the partisan divide in this country, I’m not convinced that even if China had given the world free access to what was going on and what they were learning that it would’ve made much of a difference in this country.
 By all accounts, the research points to being justified in optimism about a safe and effective vaccine being developed sooner rather than later. Measures like wearing a facemask are only temporary.
 Albert Camus, The Plague trans. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage Books, 1972), 233.