The masked warrior

People have been looking at me differently for quite a while. At first I thought it was maybe something that I imagined, something I thought was happening, but wasn’t really happening. A picture that only existed in my head. I can’t say that people stare. It’s not that. There is just a feeling of pity when our eyes meet. Sometimes people completely avert eye contact. Since some time people wait for me go up and down stairs. Some walk around me with a little bend. Yesterday, I walked down the hallway of my university building, and a technician from another department walked down the hallway towards me from the other direction. I greeted. They didn’t say anything. When they passed me, I heard a chuckle. Mind you, this was an adult. Probably in their late fifties. Grow up…

For most people that have read my blog for a while, it should not come as a surprise that I am one of the very few cautious people that still wear a mask in public places. For me, this is a no-brainer for various reasons. But sometimes, when I get laughed at in public by other adults, I think to myself: what is it I have done to people to deserve that? Super heroes wear masks. Why don’t people laugh at them? Am I so weird for still wanting to protect myself and others? I read about COVID a lot. I have always found viruses fascinating. I graduated my Masters in insects as viral transportation vessels in plants, yes, in a virology department. I am aware: I am by no means an expert on COVID. I do, however, consider myself an informed individual with a reasonable background in virology. This virus endlessly fascinates me, which is part of why I read a lot about its evolution, and its virulence and effects on humans. Based on this, I regularly revisit my ideas on the pandemic, and what I think should be reasonable mitigations of transmission in times where the world has stopped caring.

This time, I decided to devote a blog post to these ideas. Mostly to remind myself of why I do it. So here’s a couple of thoughts – in no particular order – on why I still decide to mask in public places:

I have two kids in two different daycare facilities
Me masking is as much me trying to spare YOU from all the shit my kids bring home. Could be COVID-19, but also something else. You never know. What I do know is that you should not want it. Trust me, this daycare repertoire has haunted our lives since September last year, and I wouldn’t wish the same shit to anyone else. This is problematic for a simple reason: the only thing worse for any form of work efficiency than having two sick kids at home more regularly than hoped for, is having two healthy kids at home. I hate the fact that we depend on daycare so badly, but there is no other way. Our kids do love daycare, though. I don’t think they would want to be at home with us all day every day if they were given the choice.

COVID-19 is not that good for you
Your crazy neighbor and your great uncle John may insist that COVID-19 is just a cold, and that it isn’t all that bad. I would argue that science would disagree with you. The millions dead would probably disagree. The thousands still dying every day would probably also disagree. I also disagree. Despite being triple vaccinated at the time, and being very cautious, we caught COVID-19 with the whole family last summer. For me, this wasn’t ‘just a cold’. Seeing my one year-old daughter and three year-old son with high fever for days, lacking any form of childish and playful behavior also didn’t feel like a cold. In fact, my respiratory symptoms weren’t all that dramatic, very much unlike when I have a cold. Instead, I had a splitting headache, pains everywhere, and was pretty much incapable of doing anything for two weeks. The only thing I have experienced that felt similar, both in strength and duration, was dengue fever. On day 12 or 13, our respiratory tracts were clear. Lateral flow tests showed no more signs of viral presence. Great, right? Well, wrong! Many many recent studies show that viral material can be present and active for a long time in various locations throughout your body, from your heart, your kidneys, your gut, to even your brain. Surges in COVID can be linked to surges in heart attacks, likely caused by the blood clots that COVID can create in your system. Various studies show strong implications for the immune system. There are research groups that have compared COVID to HIV, and concluded that there are strong parallels to be drawn between modes of action in several parts of the body, including ongoing inflammation and suppression of immune cell types. Various studies also have estimated that about 10-30% of infected people get long COVID, symptoms that include crippling fatigue and brain fog, that persist for longer than three months, but often much longer than that. It is not clear if long COVID is properly curable. I don’t like the acute infection of COVID. It sucks balls. However, I am much more worried of long COVID. I know too many people that have or have had it. That includes several that shrugged off symptoms as if these were normal.

I for one am not so much worried about the acute infections per se, although I have to add here that I have not enjoyed two weeks floored indoors with two young kids. I am, however, more concerned about what creeps around unseen in your body after that.

Getting reinfected is bad for you
Various studies show that once is bad, twice is worse, and three times is not cool anymore. Should we really keep reinfecting ourselves? Risks of pretty much everything you can think of, increase with number of COVID infections. Some have warned for a pandemic of disability that may follow the ‘acute pandemic’. I think we are already seeing the early symptoms. It is perhaps too early to draw early conclusions there, but I see certain potential for disaster, and enough reason to apply a precautionary principle.

In my book, a reinfection only raises the concern I voice under 1).

COVID-19 is not gone
The mainstream media does not report much anymore. Most people don’t want to talk about it anymore. But you cannot wish this thing away. Trust me. I would wish it with you, if only it would work. Here, in Germany, we still see about 15.000 to 25.000 positive cases per day. That is with most test centers dissolved, and only PCR tests included. Most people would test with a lateral flow test. Honestly, I wouldn’t even know where to get a PCR test at the moment. My GP no longer does them, I believe. Weekly deaths still hover somewhere between 700 and 1000 per week, similar to the times we had about 200.000 daily cases. I believe those times were already underreporting. My guess is that 200.000-300.000 cases a day is still a possible reality. If you are one of these ‘it’s just old people and people with backgrounds’ thinkers, you deserve a firm slap in the face. These days, I see people sneezing, sniffling, coughing and just looking ‘off’ everywhere around me. Among students, people in my university building, people at LIDL when I went for some groceries just now. Fuck, people look like shit these days. In this shitstorm of whatever respiratory bugs they carry, I do not want to even walk around without a mask. I don’t need COVID-19, but to be honest I do not need all this other shit either. Or as little as realistically possible.

Stay away from my brain
COVID has plenty of effects on the human brain. Brain fog is a common symptom. Another aspect is mental health. COVID has been shown to impact on anxiety levels in a bad way. I have suffered from generalized anxiety disorder from a long time. I have learned to deal with it as best I can. What I do not want, is bouts of deep spiralling out of control anxiety that wipe me out for weeks. I have been there. Thank you.
I worry about my brain, too. I am a scientist, and all I ever do every day is use my brain to find creative ideas and solutions to problems I encounter. This probably goes for many professionals in many fields, but although I sometimes hate my brain, I also need my brain. Anything that permanently jeopardizes the healthy functioning of my grey matter, I try to avoid. I can’t be sure if it is from COVID, but since last summer, I feel more forgetful. In times of lots of overwhelm, I sometimes feel as if I have blackouts, and cannot remember the point I was trying to make in conversations. It could be a sign of stress, a sign of anxiety, a sign of COVID. I can’t know. But I also cannot exclude the possibility, and want to do everything within my power to prevent it from getting worse.

Taking two weeks sick leave sucks
It just does. Don’t deny it. In my case, work doesn’t dissolve. Work piles up. Which means that when I get better, I just need to work twice as hard for a while. At a time where I should be taking rest and recover fully. No thank you. I would much rather work, and stick with my own planning. Having to back for colleagues that fall sick is no joy either. People falling sick just brings stress. I already have enough stress in my life.

It is not just about YOU
Maybe this should have been 1), but I think for most it is important to protect themselves, and when they no longer see a reason to, they don’t. However, the world is not about you only. There are plenty of people around you too. Some – perhaps more than you think – have backgrounds that they never asked for. Public health is about protecting everyone. You may be thinking you’re accepting the risk to yourself, but realize that you’re also willingly increasing the risk for others. Think whatever you want, it’s a free world, isn’t it. In my moral compass, this is just plain wrong.

Masks don’t really bother me
They never did, either. It has become a habit, and it’s fine.

The government, institutions and your employer will not take responsibility
Three years in, COVID-19 has turned into one of the best-studied pathogens to have ever existed. One thing is clear; it spreads via aerosols. Tiny particles that spread via talking, yawning, sneezing, coughing, but yes, even via normal breathing, and can remain airborne for god knows how long. This virus isn’t all that unique. Many respiratory diseases transmit via the same mode. In my opinion, two years ago, this was already very clear. We all wore masks, and if done correctly, this would give you a decent level of protection. As with all measures, it is not perfect. There are countless other measures that can help. However, the willingness to adopt them is not there. (Aside from at the recent World Economic Forum – our world’s billionaires and leaders were worthy of every form of optimal protection.) One of these options is cleaning the air. A while ago I was a guest at a university, and the room had a machine that filtered the air. I personally only recognized it for what it was towards the end of the meeting. It wasn’t plugged in. That’s how stupid we are as a species. For relatively little money, you can build or buy devices that clean decent amounts of air from particles. Not only does this filter out viruses, it also removes pollen, fine dust and loads of other shit. Cleaning the air is the way forward. I teach at the highest-ranking university in Germany. Cleaning the air is no longer rocket science. Why do I teach in rooms that have stale air, poor ventilation, and no filtration whatsoever. It is because those who should be taking responsibility for a safe environment don’t take it.

Until I see a teaching room equipped with a filter, or until I receive my own portable filtration device to bring with me on teaching duties, I teach with a mask on. It is the responsible thing to do. It is the safest thing to do.

Nobody wants to see my ugly mug
A really weird and flawed study was circulating on Twitter the other day. It reported that self-proclaimed attractive people were less likely to mask, than self-proclaimed ugly people. I believe this to be true. However, the conclusion that beautiful people were less likely to mask was a bit unfunded. I don’t think self-proclaimed beauty and perceived beauty are not necessarily correlated. I also couldn’t give a fuck. In a similar non-sensical way, I would hypothesize that self-proclaimed empaths are more likely to mask than self-proclaimed sadists. As an academic, I know how difficult it can be to acquire academic funding sometimes, even for good research. It pains me to see that this form of shallow research also receives funding. Maybe it was self-proclaimed funding. I don’t know.

So you’re one of those ZEROCOVID types?
Nah. I think we should have taken that chance when it was possible. By August 2020, this asshole virus could have been wiped out if we all had shown the will and the solidarity to act together. Many governments did a good job. Then we all collectively went on to do nothing. I don’t believe there is a road to zero covid. COVID circulates in many animal populations, and even if we would get all of us on the same page, new zoonotic events would be waiting to happen. It also evolves way too rapidly for any lasting immunity through current vaccinations or infection. The way it looks now, COVID is here to stay, and – yes – we need to learn to live with it. Living with it, however, doesn’t equate doing nothing at all. Here’s what I think is a viable idea. We need to clean the air in public buildings and create safe environments. We need to support those that are exposed via their profession to large gatherings in getting the clean air they deserve. We need to protect the people that we expose to our own aerosols, in settings where clean air is difficult to achieve. (Yes, I’m arguing for people wearing a mask in supermarkets. It’s not that hard.) We need to discourage everyone who’s sick from taking part in public activity. We need to support people that are sick, so that they can stay at home without financial or other burden. We need to keep working on treatments, for acute and long COVID infections. We need to work on lasting immunity from vaccines. Vaccines aren’t perfect, but offer protection from severe disease. Unfortunately, the current vaccines do NOT prevent transmission completely.

Until we do, I don’t think there is such a thing as ‘living with it’ or a true ‘new normal’.

So you don’t have a fucking life anymore?
I very much do. I am cautious, but not perfect. I have an active work life, where I meet dozens of students every week. I meet my team, and various other colleagues. I am almost always masked, but make exceptions some moments for a quick emptying of a coffee cup (I’m human too). I go to conferences, where I mask. I go to meetings, masked. What I do not do, is join my colleagues for lunch. It is something I miss, but I do not want to take the personal risk. I also do not go for drinks, if the setting is inside. I missed out on some winter events that I would have loved to partake in. It is what it is. It will be summer again soon, and maybe we can meet outside again.

We also now do meet people sometimes at home, and yes, these are maskless meetings. These are calculated risks. We always ask people to stay home when they are feeling sick. People that stay longer, such as family, we ask to test (as do we). It is not perfect, but reduces some risk. We have also more recently invited friends over in our house. Socializing is important. Taking a one-time risk is quite a stretch from the every day risks I may be exposed to at work. However, I no longer cook for ten people in my home. I miss that, though. I recently cooked a savoury winter soup for my team, and we enjoyed it during an evening around an outdoor bonfire. It was cold, but an alternative to meeting indoors. I think it was fun.

Life is different. Maybe life should be different. I hope there will be a future movement to clean our air. It should be our right.

Until then, I wear a mask. Chuckle all you want.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

2 thoughts on “The masked warrior

    1. Thank you. Sometimes I seriously wonder if I’m losing my mind, but I believe not. It’s so strange – and lonely – to stand out of the crowd like this. However, I fear that most people don’t follow the situation as closely as I do. It’s understandable, too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: