OPINION: Keep the mask on — there may not be a post-COVID world

For 14 months, I have kept myself shut inside my apartment, so scared of the outside world that I have had to bolster myself just to open the door to grab my DoorDash delivery. The COVID-19 pandemic has stirred a stew of virus-related fear inside of me that has boiled over into something I believe may last forever, a scar on my psyche that may never heal. While my phobia about the outside is extreme, there is one thing that brings me comfort whenever I am forced to journey: my mask.

I feel entirely unprotected without my mask, like a knight without a shield. According to Vox, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention first recommended wearing a mask in April of 2020, and since then my mask has been a regular part of my wardrobe, just as much as my socks. With COVID-19 vaccinations becoming more widely available throughout the United States, there seems to be a light at the end of the coronavirus tunnel. Even if the coronavirus becomes a thing of the past within the next few months, or by the end of 2021, I cannot foresee myself going to a public place without my mask for the next several years.

Of course, fear is a strong motivator of this reticence. Since December 2019, the coronavirus has proven its lethal capabilities almost 3 million times, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. Additionally, the Associated Press has reported that scientists expect the virus that causes COVID-19 to persist, potentially for the next several decades, regardless of vaccination.

The negative effects of the coronavirus on the human body may be lessened if the virus evolves to become less lethal, according to the AP. But that doesn’t mean we should be less cautious or scared of the harm that post-vaccination COVID-19 can bring. We still have to concern ourselves with the flu, the common cold, other types of illness or infection and the coronavirus. With full knowledge of what the coronavirus is capable of, we should take every possible step to prevent it from spreading, even if it eventually becomes less harmful than it currently is. Based on current CDC guidelines for protection against COVID-19, I think the easiest step behind washing and sanitizing hands is wearing a mask.

This all assumes that the coronavirus behaves as predicted. According to Scientific American, the coronavirus has mutated in the past and may again in the future. Multiple variants currently exist, with some being more deadly or more transmissible regardless of our immune defenses. As a result, according to Scientific American, we may have to adjust our vaccine development and distribution.

At this point, we can hope that the coronavirus will evolve to become less lethal and less contagious. Unfortunately, the opposite may occur, and the virus may become easier to catch and more harmful. This cannot be predicted with any certainty, so I don’t think taking any sort of risk in the near future will be worthwhile.

I fear that our current reality— in which my pre-existing social anxieties are heightened by my determination to socially distance more than six feet away from everyone and my frustration whenever I see someone in a grocery store without a mask — may never change. The little control I have over such an impossible situation is to keep my mask on.

There are also other reasons to keep my mask on. A study from the University of Padua in Italy found that other people are more likely to distance themselves from you if you wear a mask in public. This also means fewer unwanted social interactions in public. For someone who is naturally an introvert, this is a positive.

Despite quarantining myself in my apartment for more than a year, during which I made countless efforts to avoid opportunities for social interaction for fear of my own safety, all I can think of are further ways to avoid social interaction.

I am aware that there are many who would passionately disagree with me that this is a benefit, especially since this has been such a long period of  social isolation. I acknowledge this perspective and understand that while introverts may be happy with the additional social consequences of continuing to wear a mask, extroverts may face fewer opportunities to communicate.

COVID-19 has caused me moments of paranoia, germaphobia and at this point, general agoraphobia. I don’t like going outside or checking my mail without my mask. I worry that even brief interactions may cause me to become yet another name in the ever-growing list of thousands who already have lost their lives to this horrible virus. Even when we overcome the coronavirus, the haunting memory of how we have had to live may keep my face behind a mask for each trip to the grocery store. While I may be happy not to deal with some unwanted interactions in the future, I can’t tell whether that’s even what I want anymore. Somehow COVID-19 has made me, a supreme introvert, wonder whether I should allow strangers to talk to me, just because I am desperate to experience human interaction. This confusion is a lasting and unhealthy side effect of the coronavirus not listed on any CDC page, but I know for a fact that the symptoms I am experiencing are important.

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