As each episode of the Lone Ranger ended, with a “hearty hi-ho Silver away” there was always left hanging in the air, the question, “who was that masked man?”
As the coronavirus pandemic rages ahead with an ever increasing number of people, old and young alike, becoming infected and with the death toll constantly rising, the war over the use of a face mask also rages ahead. According to the most up to date medical advice, wearing a face mask is a bigly effective way to reduce the transmission of Covid-19. An article in the medical journal,Lancet, reported that wearing a face mask reduced the transmission from 17% to 3%. So the question arises then, not “who is that masked man,” but who is the “unmasked man” and why?
A look back into history and at some monumental events in the evolution of medical science sheds light on that question and the answer to it.
In 1847, a young Hungarian physician, Ignaz Phillip Semmelweis, connected the dots to the cause of childbirth sepsis and created an assault on tradition by demanding that all physicians entering the obstetrical ward of the Viennese Hospital where he practiced wash their hands with a chlorine rinse. The mortality rate from infection dropped dramatically but the ridicule and mockery from the highest levels by those protecting their own image, power and economic status,squashed Semmelweis’ epic work. It would be more than twenty years and countless un-necessary deaths before the connections between germs and infection were finally made by the work of Lister, Pasteur and Koch.Even then, however, it took massive efforts to overcome the resistance of those whose power base was threatened.
Still another example of how the established powers of the day threatened a major advance in health care was the work of Horace Wells, a Hartford, Connecticut dentist. Wells discovered that by using nitrous oxide or “laughing gas” he could extract teeth without the patient suffering the excruciating pain usually associated with such a procedure. Wells then went on to look for other agents and subsequently, with the help of dedicated associates, found that ether was a very effective way to keep all patients undergoing surgery free from pain. With his work, another frontier in the advancement of medical care was crossed. Yet, in spite of the obvious benefits, leaders whose positions and power were threatened, pushed back once again delaying for thousands of patients the benefits of anesthesia to mankind. Simple, sensible scientific means of advancing health for everyone were halted by greed and the thirst for power.
And now we come to our own day, threatened by a rampant virus that is creating havoc everywhere. With no cure or vaccine to prevent it, public health measures that include the wearing of a face mask are crucial. Yet, once again, power, greed and position are casting doubt on the usefulness of such a simple act as preventing exposure to others by keeping that virus out of the air they breathe. When leadership, so vital to modeling the standards of scientifically proven health practices fails, just as with Semmelweis and Wells, lives are needlessly lost and everyone’s health is at risk.
It would be comforting perhaps to “return to those thrilling days of yesteryear” when the Lone Ranger, mask and all, triumphed over all adversaries. But nostalgia will not carry weight with this pandemic. It is time, instead, for the political landscape to change, embrace the reality of this threat to us all, be guided by both common sense and scientific understanding and for leadership to move beyond impediment to action.
Perhaps then, when the question of “who is that masked man” is raised, the answer will be all of us.