I once lived in a country where everyone littered. The streets were covered with bottles, cans and food wrappings. Sidewalks abounded with dog waste. “It’s good luck!” someone exclaimed when I accidentally stepped in the brown slime. Alas, I did not agree.

A few years later, when I returned to visit that country, anti-littering laws had been passed. The streets were clean, and people picked up after their dogs. I was relieved but also a little sad. Why did people need a law to convince them to think of the common good? Why, without a law, was the individual convenience of littering preferable to the collective benefit of clean streets?

This is how I feel now, having returned to Dubuque after three months caring for my elderly parents in New York State. Recently the COVID-19 epicenter, New York has made progress in containing the virus (for now). While scientists are learning how this virus spreads and changing their recommendations as they gain new information, the current consensus is that masks play a large part in stopping the spread. In wearing a mask, you are not protecting yourself so much as the people around you.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

When I’m in an indoor public place and see people wearing masks, I receive the message, “I care about you and your safety.” When I see people without masks, I receive the message, “My convenience and immediate comfort are more important than you.”

As someone with a weak immune system, I vastly prefer the first message.