Opinion: The ethics of mask-free travel
On April 18th, a federal judge in Florida ruled that mask mandates on air travel were unlawful, and the Biden administration approved the measure.
Viral videos of air passengers and flight attendants alike celebrating the ruling mid-flight circulated, showing them ripping off their masks with raucous cheers as if their favorite football team had won the Superbowl, a sight that sent chills down the spines of health experts and those vulnerable to COVID-19 and its variants. About two weeks later, the US death toll reached (at least) one million COVID-19 deaths, while the World Health Organization estimates at at least 15 million deaths worldwide. Given the severity of this global crisis we are still very much in the midst of, is the dropping of mask mandates on air travel really something to celebrate?
”[The viral videos] make me feel as though my life as an immunocompromised person has no value, ”Mary Fashik told me over email, a queer disability rights advocate who founded the Upgrade Accessibility platform, which raises awareness around issues affecting the disability community. Fashik, who has a host of chronic illnesses, continued, writing, “I have always known that society sees me as a burden and does not care whether I live or die. However, knowing that and it being very clearly demonstrated are two different things. ”
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Maya Davis, an asthmatic Black Caribbean-American living in Brooklyn also relayed her thoughts on the videos to me, writing, “I feel like Alice when she went down the rabbit hole. It’s deteriorating my faith in the common good. “
COVID-19 continues to mutate, with the latest variant of concern, BA.2.12.1, spreading rapidly, leading experts to forecast it being the dominant form of the virus within the next few weeks. According to the CDC, COVID is now the third-leading cause of death in the US, with about 360 people dying daily. Yet, in the face of this alarming, often avoidable catastrophe, tourists sip complimentary champagne on Delta flights and whoop about what could, at best, be described as a radically minute inconvenience en route to their vacations.
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Positive reactions can be partially due to the virus impacting marginalized Americans the most: the elderly, the disabled, the working class and Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC), groups that already faced disproportionate health outcomes before 2020. In fact, researchers from the National Opinion Research Center found that mask usage by white people rose in 2021 when their communities were being hit hard, but then dropped drastically when later reports showed that Black and Latinx communities were suffering at higher rates. The poll also found that 71% of Black Americans are currently in favor of mask-wearing on planes, compared to 52% of whites. “Anti-Blackness is really pervasive and has tremendous consequences, both in terms of the policies that get passed, and what does not,” the paper’s co-author Berkeley Franz told PBS News Hour last week.
However, no other demographic has suffered more losses than elders over age of 65, accounting for three-fourths of the dead, the Scientific Amerian reported earlier this week. Of course, these are compounded oppressions, as elders of color are statistically more likely to be a primary or secondary caregiver to grandchildren, exacerbating the childcare crisis. “I’m old enough to remember polio,” 69-year-old journalist Ms. Toni L. Kamins wrote me over email, continuing, “It would be a great idea for [those celebrating] to read about what now-preventable diseases did to people [with] polio, smallpox, diphtheria [and more]. ”
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There are many reasons why people travel, but it is well-known that the majority of those who travel for leisure, especially abroad, are a part of the privileged few. Given the historically individualistic nature of American culture, in particular, and the manifold problematic issues that pervade tourism, it comes as no surprise that some will prioritize individual fun over collective care. That they need to loudly cheer about it as hundreds of graves are dug by the day, is insensitive, at best.
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Those I spoke to have this to say for non-masking tourists: “You should honestly be ashamed of yourselves,” Davis said. “You’re putting everyone in jeopardy because your two-ply, 50-in-a-pack little medical mask is slightly bothersome. Have a sense of community! ” Ms. Kamins wrote, “Grow the hell up,” and Fashik concluded with, “Stop being selfish. Wearing a mask on a plane does not harm anyone. Not wearing one does. Disabled and chronically ill individuals have the right to live. ”
While the ruling is in effect for air travel, mandates in airports and on public transportation vary by state, and the CDC still recommends that travelers stay masked.
If you choose to unmask on flights, at least have the decency to read the room and keep the applause to yourself.
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