Friday, May 14, 2021

To Mask or Not to Mask?

Cindy wearing a CARE mask that says

Here we are at last. The CDC announced that vaccinated folk don’t have to wear our masks anymore, outdoors or indoors. Yay! Kind of…

This announcement doesn’t mean the COVID-19 pandemic is over, but it shows we’re firmly moving into a next phase of the pandemic. This phase might be less frightening in the US, but it’s still terrifying for those living in countries like India and Nepal where COVID-19 runs rampant with cities running out of oxygen and funeral pyres burn in the streets. It’s still frustrating for low-income countries like Ghana and Trinidad & Tobago lacking vaccines for a significant portion of their population.

So, now that vaccinated Americans have a new freedom we can exercise, what now? We’re not at 100% vaccination coverage…heck we don’t even have the 70-80% required for herd immunity. We can’t tell by looking at people whether they had the vaccine. How should we think about it?

Kindness Still Matters.

One of my mommy-mantras that I say to my kids is: “Just because you CAN do a thing, doesn’t mean you SHOULD do a thing.” While I look forward to putting my mask aside in some situations, I think my mantra can help us consider when and wear to keep our masks on.

Last year, I wrote that staying home to “Flatten the Curve" was an act of kindness. Now, I’m saying that wearing a mask-even when you’re not required to-can be an act of kindness as well. Here are some ways wearing your mask in public can spread kindness and empathy.

Help others around you feel comfortable.

My 15-year-old just got her first dose yesterday. However, as she watched older kids and adults get vaccinated all around her in the last few months, she felt uncomfortable in situations where they would take off their masks and urge her to do the same. I know of another teen who has had such anxiety in the past year that she wears a mask even alone in her room just because it helps her feel comfortable and safe. 

We will still have a lot of tweens and teens unvaccinated for the next few months since the federal approval just happened this week. Plus, ALL children under 12 are still unvaccinated. Even though the risk is lower is lower these days, there are a lot of feelings still on high-alert. We can extend grace to those who feel anxious.

Protect the vulnerable among us.

 Tweet from Upgrade Accessibility warning that the 
CDC announcement is dangerous for
disabled/chronically ill people.
A norm of mask wearing helps keep our disabled, immunocompromised, and chronically ill friends safe. There are some among them unable to get the vaccine. Some of them are fully vaccinated, but suffer from poor immunity, so they just can’t gamble. If a vaccine is 94% effective against COVID-19, chances of contracting are small, but would be disastrous. Breakthrough cases are not common, but definitely expected. 

Tweet from vaccinated & immunocompromised 
individual asking for understanding for his
continued mask wearing.
You can’t tell who these folks are by looking at them. So, again, if someone asks you to put on a mask, don’t ask why. Just think about these reasons and be gracious as you mask up.

Set a good example.

You can help normalize wearing a mask for those that are afraid to get the vaccine, but still need to wear a mask. The CDC tells us that 65% of the US population is still unvaccinated today. That tells me that over half of Americans should still mask up indoors, including children from ages 2-12. Every parent knows kids are more likely to exhibit good behavior if parents are set a good example to follow. If I had kids under 12, I would surely mask up in solidarity, so they know it's important and don't get grumbly about it.

People’s reasons for not yet getting the COVID-19 are varied. It’s not that all of them just don’t care. I know there are people afraid of needles, afraid of the vaccine, afraid their immigration status will impact their vaccine access, afraid to take time off work to get vaccinated, afraid they can’t afford the vaccine (not true, it’s free!), etc, etc. We’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome. While we overcome them, I don’t want any of those people to feel peer-pressured by ME to take their masks off! Because if they do, we’re all going to live with COVID-19 restrictions for a longer time.

Protect everyone from COVID-19 variants.

Cindy with her favorite Sustainable
Development Goal:
#3 Good Health & Well-Being
As a global health advocate, I can’t stress how important it is to continue to think globally. The global situation for COVID-19 variants is still very unstable, even for people who are fully vaccinated. We don’t yet have aggressive testing in place to track dangerous variants, so we won’t know about them until they are a serious problem.

We’ve gotten very lucky so far that none of the variants have yet eluded the current vaccines. Mask wearing both protects a population from variant outbreaks and provides fewer opportunities for dangerous variants to form during a pandemic phase (like right now) where the disease is still unchecked in a large part of the world.

In what situations will you still wear a mask? 

Will you put one on if someone asks you to do so?

Monday, May 10, 2021

Going the Extra Mile with Advocacy

Logo for
"The Extra Mile" podcast
I recently started listening to the Extra Mile podcast hosted by Charity Miles founder Gene Gurkoff. He interviews people going the extra mile for health and to make an impact. It made me reminisce about how I started using Charity Miles (a walking/running app that donates money according to your distance to causes you select) to “go the extra mile” for global immunization and hunger causes. I already gave money to organizations working on those issues, and Charity Miles became another way to contribute. But the biggest way I know how to go an extra mile for global health is to advocate.

Most people don’t really know what a volunteer advocate does, how it’s different from service volunteering, or how impactful the work can be. That’s why I started telling people the story of the river metaphor that I first heard at a Bread for the World conference. Here, I’ll tell it to you…

The River Metaphor

Image: A rocky river with a sharp 
dropoff ahead
Imagine you are having a picnic near the banks of a river. You hear a cry for help and see people fighting for their lives in the middle of the current. Mothers try to hold their babies above the water, but they are drowning. Children are being sucked under with exhausted parents.

You and your friends toss ropes into the raging waters to reach as many people as you can, one by one. The survivors are grateful, but they point upriver where even more victims are swept helplessly along. Maybe your buddies devise a brilliant system of ropes and pulleys to rescue multiple people, but there are far too many to save.

While your party is fishing people out of the raging waters, you turn your eyes upriver and wonder: “Why is this happening? Did a bridge collapse? Is there someone pushing people in the river? Is there some terrible danger up there that makes a perilous plunge the better choice?”

You hike upstream to prevent people from falling into the river in the first place. Because you are a change-focused advocate, you hike that extra mile to find the root cause of the suffering and strategically use your influence to eliminate that cause so that no one has to drown. Once you figure out a strategy to save the most people, you will speak up and convince your community to follow your plan.

Direct Service Versus Advocacy

The river illustrates the difference between “direct service” and “advocacy.” Direct service workers give of their energy and talents to help people in crisis. Disaster relief workers, soup kitchen servers, and polio vaccinators are examples of direct service providers. On-the-ground relief work can be incredibly satisfying as it connects volunteers directly to individuals who need help. Most people think about direct service when they think about volunteering and charity work.

Change advocates go the extra mile. They look for preventative solutions. They rally even more help for the long term.

At its best, advocacy is about seeking out root causes, finding effective solutions, and persuading other people to help implement those solutions.

I admit, the work can feel far removed from the people you are trying to help, which some find less rewarding than direct service roles.

Working to change a system requires an ability to delay desires for instant gratification and personal thanks. But when you know that no more people will fall into the metaphorical river or—in the real world—that children in your community are no longer need to go to a food bank for meals, it feels good knowing that you saved many more people than you ever could have if you never took the mental leap to leave the riverbank.

Serving Millions, Not Hundreds

As a busy mom, I have learned to ask myself: “Since I’m just one person, what’s the best use of my volunteer time to help the most people?”

When I was childless and single with lots of free time, I served dinner in a church soup kitchen. Standing behind serving tables, scooping casserole and welcoming hundreds of people became a highlight of my month. It warmed my heart to hear their words of thanks and to see children happily munching.

Over time, I worried about what soup kitchen clients did on days when they couldn’t get hot meals from the church. So, I moved a little farther upstream and began volunteering with the Greater Chicago Food Depository to supply food pantries all around the area. Although I felt like my work was making a difference, my personal efforts seemed dwarfed by the immense need. Unfortunately, even those efforts ended after my first baby was born. I stepped away from hands-on projects they weren't compatible with the hands-on work required for baby care.

Bread for the World
Eventually, I learned from Bread for the World that I didn’t have to give up the battle against hunger even if I could no longer spend hours in a soup kitchen or food pantry. In fact, I learned that the work I had been doing was addressing only a symptom—hunger—without addressing its root cause—poverty. Lack of a living wage, mass incarceration, lack of affordable housing, and even food subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill all play a part in perpetuating a cycle of poverty resulting in hunger.

If I wanted to help more people, I could use my voice to change the systems that perpetuate poverty. Plus, I could do that even while caring for my children. Of course, moving my efforts further up the river meant that I would never meet most of the people my work would benefit. But I soon discovered that I am okay with that because I know not everyone has patience for the congressional work that I do.  

Both Roles Are Vital

Even if you prefer to work as a direct service provider, you’ll probably find it satisfying to take a simple advocacy action now and then, such as writing to Congress or signing an online petition. You could also team up with an advocate who is working on a similar issue. Advocates can set up meetings with elected officials, write newspaper pieces, or arrange for public awareness events that create opportunities for direct service volunteers to tell their stories to the right people at the right time.

RESULTS advocates taking a turn at direct service 
by packing food to be shipped to people in need
with St. Louis World Food Day
Similarly, being an advocate does not mean you can never be involved in direct service. Hands-on work frequently provides inspiration and personal stories to fuel advocacy. You don’t have to choose between one and the other!

Food donations AND better government policies are needed to feed our communities, so we need direct service providers AND advocates to solve the complicated problem of hunger—and many others like it.

What kinds of direct service do YOU like to do? 

Can you combine it with advocacy, too?