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Suppose someone told you that a terrible thing was happening: something that was having a devastating impact on sick children – as well as the elderly, medically vulnerable people and medical staff, and could, really, have a severe effect on any of us. But that you could make a little shift in your life, the tiniest change in your behaviour, that could alleviate the suffering and a looming catastrophe. Would you do it?

Of course you would, because you are not a sociopath.

And yet.

We are experiencing a terrible confluence of a spike in RSV infections, along with COVID-19 and influenza (the “triple threat,” as Ontario chief medical officer of health Kieran Moore called it on Monday), at the same time as hospitals are experiencing a decline in capacity and staffing, with the pandemic in its third year. Waits at emergency rooms, especially at children’s hospitals – not just in Ontario – are unsustainably lengthy, at times forcing people to wait in the parking lot. Hearing those on the front lines – health care workers, parents – tell it, the system feels like it is teetering close to collapse. It’s terrifying.

And there are supply chain issues to boot. While the pediatric ICUs are full, children’s pain medications are absent from pharmacy shelves. Reinforcements are on the way, we are told, but not immediately.

And it’s only mid-November. There is a long cold and flu (and now COVID) season ahead.

What, oh what, could we possibly do about this?

We know from public-health officials – not to mention science and common sense – that wearing a proper mask can help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, especially in indoor settings.

And yet.

There is an unhealthy reluctance among those public-health officials – and politicians – to bring back mask mandates. And, not unrelatedly, there is an inexplicable abhorrence among some Canadians to masking: people who not only refuse to wear masks themselves, but also actively and belligerently advocate against using them, even shaming others who do.

It is grotesque that masking has been co-opted as a political issue, with these whiners raging at mask-wearing as if it is an actual affront to their freedom.

You know what’s an affront to freedom? Having a desperately ill child who cannot see a doctor or whose surgery has to be pushed back because the ICUs are full. Having a sick family member who cannot get a hospital bed – or has to wait for double-digit hours in the ER to be seen for a critical issue.

Masks aren’t a panacea, but they are a simple way to help ease the health care crisis.

We need to normalize wearing masks, as is the practice in parts of Asia. Not just as a pandemic measure. Not all the time; not all year, even. But at this time of year, what used to be called cold-and-flu season, when we typically see increases in respiratory viruses – including COVID – masks need to return to our lives annually, brought back out along with the puffy coats, hats and mitts. The escalation in infections is predictable; with COVID, it has happened for three years now. So think of this as part of the winter wardrobe switch. You pack away the sandals, lug out the snow tires, and restock your household mask supply.

Return of seasonal flu, RSV and other viruses could spell disaster for older Canadians, experts say

There has to be a cultural shift in how we view the practice, at least for now. We should be wearing masks, at certain times and in certain situations – especially crowded indoor public spaces – to protect the population and the system. Masks should be a must if you have a cough or sniffle and need to leave the house.

In the absence of mask mandates, I wish we could trust people to do the right thing. To not be childish (big tell: calling masks “face diapers”), but to help the children. And everyone else. This is a critical, scary time. There is an easy way to make a difference.

Wearing a mask does not mean a loss of freedom. In fact, it gives us freedom to go places more safely – to work, to school. To see family, to have fun.

I would call on anti-maskers to make this sacrifice, but it feels wrong to deploy the word “sacrifice” to describe the experience. What is the sacrifice, exactly? Masks might not always be the most comfortable things, but neither are heavy winter boots. We put on the clunky footwear because it protects us. Masks go even further: they protect others too.