John M. Crisp, Tribune News Service
Governor Greg Abbott is launching a massive medical experiment this week in Texas. Effective Wednesday, my state’s pandemic mask mandate will be eliminated, and Texas businesses will be permitted to open at 100 per cent capacity.
The question is how many Texans will die if they stop wearing masks and begin congregating in larger numbers. A few? Or many? We should get results in a month or two.
Many are concerned that reopening Texas now is too much, too soon. Is Texas allowing its desire for normalcy to lure it into self-deluding complacency about how dangerous the pandemic still is?
National progress against COVID-19 is showing signs of stalling. The CDC director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, is emphatic: “Now is not the time to stop wearing a mask.” Further: “We stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci says that removing mask mandates is “ill-advised,” “quite risky” and will likely lead to another surge in COVID cases. Mayors of major Texas cities — Houston, San Antonio, Austin — have objected to the end of the mandate, as have public health officials.
Even President Joe Biden weighed in, calling the hasty reopening of Texas “Neanderthal thinking,” insulting Texans and Neanderthals at the same time. We don’t know everything about the much-maligned Neanderthals, but we have no reason to believe that they ignored what little “science” they had 100,000 years ago. We don’t have that excuse: Our science says clearly that masks reduce the spread of COVID, in perfect agreement with logic and common sense.
Neanderthals would have a hard time understanding why, after we’ve discovered something that works, we can’t wait to stop doing it.
Nevertheless, Governor Abbott announced the reopening of Texas on March 2, Texas Independence Day. In fact, Abbott relied heavily on the notion of independence, personal responsibility and personal freedom, sending the mixed message that it wouldn’t be a bad idea to wear a mask, but nobody is going to make you. Texans don’t allow themselves to be pushed around!
As Texas Senator Ted Cruz put it at CPAC, quoting Mel Gibson: “Freedom!!”
Of course, Ted Cruz was born in Canada. My ancestors came to Texas in the 1840s, real frontier folks who made their own clothes, churned their own butter and plowed their own fields in the wilderness, pushing notions of self-reliance and independence to their limits.
But nothing in their experience evolves logically into the modern myth that Abbott is exploiting, the idea of Texans who are offended at the suggestion that they should be expected to violate their personal freedom in order to sacrifice for the common good. In fact, I’m not sure where that myth got such power. Maybe in the movies. But I suspect that my frontier ancestors valued community, and instinctually understood the importance of its well-being, as much as we do. And so, probably, did the Neanderthals, for that matter.
My mother was 6 years old during the great influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed some 50 million people. She retained vague memories of the pandemic’s arrival in her tiny east Texas community. The frontier was gone by that time, but not by much. A member of her household, an ancient aunt, still bore the scars of an Indian attack when she was a girl.
No one in my mother’s family contracted influenza, but she remembers her parents going to the homes of others to tend to the ill. Eventually she lived through the Great Depression in her hardscrabble Texas community, then World War II, and then the racial reckonings of the ‘60s, in a culture where the N-word was regularly used as a casual epithet.
My mom’s is a classic Texas story. Somehow Governor Abbott has derived the idea that all Texans demand the right to unbridled personal freedom, even if it hurts the community. That’s simply not true. My mother took something different away from her long Texas history: strength, endurance, patience, stoicism, self-sacrifice and respect for others and the common good. These virtues will serve us better during this pandemic than the bogus battle cry of “Freedom!!”
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