The Cigarette and The Mask

“Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.”

While I walk back to my apartment with bags full of groceries under my arms, I stop at the cross section waiting for the walking signal to light up, seemingly unaware of the bike screeching by me. “Hey, watch out, man!”, the bicyclist yells as he peddles past me almost knocking into my groceries. He speeds by just narrowly missing oncoming traffic as he heads downtown. Just as I catch my bags and see if I’ve been clipped, I noticed that he’s wearing sunglasses on with his surgical mask pulled down below his chin and has an unlit cigarette in his mouth.

Now, I would hope that he was not getting ready to smoke while biking, but it sure looked like he had smoked a few or more cigarettes. We were both outside at the time, of course, and I could assume that he maybe just likes to wear a mask indoors and would rather smoke a cigarette while he biked or afterwards to enjoy the rush while getting some needed fresh air. The confluence of events of almost getting hit by this biker along with the scene of him having an unlit cigarette in his mouth, a mask under his chin, and no helmet on as he sped through foot traffic without regard for anybody else was so laden with irony that I couldn’t happen to notice all the ironies afoot.

If a commercial could be made about this bicyclist, it would be quite entertaining. “Protect yourself from COVID in the short-term, but don’t forget about the long-term risks to one’s health!” In that commercial, it would show the bicyclist being transformed from having a cigarette in his mouth to having none with a nicotine patch or gum if it’s anti-smoking or if it’s pro-safety to have him properly wearing a biking helmet rather than not having one.

These kind of public health or public safety campaigns are quite common in our culture especially when it comes to the dangers of smoking and the dangers of not wearing a helmet while cycling or biking. Now, after almost two years, we now have quite substantive public health messages around wearing a face mask or adequate face covering, especially while indoors, to prevent the further spread of the Coronavirus. The same public health messaging was quite prevalent at first when it came to social or physical distancing before the arrival of tested and approved vaccines.

Undoubtedly, these public health messages have saved thousands of lives and done much to further the progress of the current vaccination campaigns. We now know society-wide how masks can help prevent the spread of viruses just as we knew starting in the 1980s and later in the 1990s the harm that smoking can do long-term to one’s health. It took a few decades but now smoking is much less prevalent than it used to be, and the risks are well-known. The same could be said about wearing a protective helmet when biking or riding a motorcycle. It took a while for these messages to be ingrained in our society, but they protect not only our health long-term but also our safety in the short-term.

The advent of mask wearing in a pandemic has not fully set in for some people but for most people, the public health messages had a massive impact and after some initial confusion and the lack of supplies for protective gear, almost two years later, that public health messaging has set in across society. You could argue if the advent of mask wearing in public will have the same longevity or the same need years from now as anti-smoking campaigns would. While virus and diseases can become endemic, they can also possibly burn out much quicker than the long-term health risks that will remain with us after the pandemic such as smoking or drinking alcohol.

While the public health and safety messages around mask wearing, helmet wearing, and not smoking especially near a building have made people healthier and safer, I fear that other health warnings or messaging has been rather lackluster especially during the pandemic. Wearing a mask and not picking up a cigarette are easy enough for society to adopt, but the messaging should not end there.

In the age of the Internet, social media, and seemingly endless modes of messaging mediums, I have not noticed any uptick in making the public aware about the benefits of exercising daily or multiple times per week. I also have not noticed an effort to educate people on what a well-balanced diet looks like or what foods to avoid that are both addictive and unhealthy. Smoking is a bad habit but so is not having a proper diet. I am not saying that people should be told what to eat and what to drink but I don’t see the harm in sharing more messaging about what a healthy breakfast, lunch, or dinner looks like or to give examples to adults, especially young people in college or in their 20s.

In addition to a proper diet, bringing to people’s attention the need to exercise has never been a real part of public health messaging. The lack of public and/or outdoor gyms provided by towns and cities has contributed to other health issues that have reared their head during the pandemic. COVID-19 may be with us now but other health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are not going away anytime soon.

For the almost two years of the pandemic, there was a real opportunity that was squandered for the public to hear about other ways to stay healthy and well. Viruses make people fearful and anxious but instead of just saying “wear a mask!” and “be socially distant!”, other messages about sleeping 7-8 hours a night, reducing our time staring at screens, maintaining a healthy diet, and making sure to exercise each day or most days was rarely ever thought of to be entered into public consciousness.

Even something as simple as telling people who were mainly indoors to take their vitamins each day especially both Vitamins C and D, which some people are deficient in especially in wintertime was completely neglected. I usually refrain from commenting on matters of public health but having done all these things for myself as many others do on their own accord, I don’t see why this kind of public health messaging hasn’t caught on. It doesn’t take more than a minute or two to discuss proper habits to build such as having more hours of sleep, what goes into a healthy diet, why exercise is important, or what are the benefits of vitamins.

I am not sure of how much money has been spent on anti-smoking, anti-drunk driving campaigns over the years but I’m sure it’s much more than what could also been address to the public. Now, in addition to the ills of drinking, smoking, we know now why mask wearing is important during a pandemic with an infectious virus that spreads easily. I don’t think that we should stop there and to keep trying to advocate for other commonly known public health matters that sadly still go largely ignored in terms of messaging campaigns.

From the local to the national level, after the pandemic is over, I would strongly recommend investing much more money, time, and even public infrastructure (outdoor gyms, for example) in building awareness of different public health matters that have remained largely unaddressed. From sleep to diet to exercise to even how to manage anxiety and stress properly, these important messages will affect people’s long-term health positively.

We know messages have worked in the past as I mentioned with wearing a helmet, not smoking in public places, and wearing a mask when others are near you. Lives have been saved and society has been improved because of those messages. When it comes to everyone’s long-term health, I would ask us all to think bigger to improve messaging around other public health needs, so we don’t end up only receiving advice on protecting the public’s health during a once-in-a-century global pandemic.

Three Tips for Public Safety

A recent incident and rather close call as well regarding my personal safety reminded me of how important it is to take certain precautions when you are out and about especially in an unfamiliar setting. If you’re in a new city or a new country, you’ll want to double down even more on your own safety when you don’t know your way around or are not able to communicate well in the local language. Urban environments tend to be the most difficult safety wise which is why I am compiling a list of these three public safety tips that I often use and which you may also find useful.

Now, these three tips may not be able to keep you 100% safe, but they will lower the odds and substantially minimize your exposure to risky situations and potential danger. One tip that should be common sense to begin with but which I sometimes neglect is to always be on your guard in some measurable way. To let your guard down even just for a little while can be all someone needs to attack, harm, or rob you in some way. The most important thing you can do in an unfamiliar setting is never let your guard down and to stay vigilant.

These three tips add on to that basic philosophy and will help you in additional ways. While I am far of a safety expert and am not a security professional, I give these tips based on my own experiences and reasoning. I hope that you find them useful and are able to utilize them for your own personal security. While this is definitely not an exhaustive list, I definitely believe that these three tips are some of the most common sense and reasonable out there when it comes to exercising caution in public.

  1. Keep away from the sidewalk curb or edge

You may not see this tip as being very important, but I find this is an underrated one when it comes to staying safe in public. You’ll want to maintain your distance from oncoming traffic as much as possible and I find that it’s safer to be closer to the building than to the curb. These days, you simply never know if a car, bus, or even a truck could lose control and end up mounting the curb to cause serious harm to you or another person.

Also, if you happen to be in a city where snatch-and-grab robberies can happen quickly, you want to make it as hard as possible for those robbers in a car or in a motorcycle to nab your personal items. You will want to keep away from them as much as possible when walking on the sidewalk. It makes it easier for them to grab your purse, bag, backpack, or phone the closer you are in proximity to the street.

Lastly, regarding events in the past, intentional attacks by criminals or terrorists using vehicles while a very remote possibility is something you could keep in mind by staying away from the street traffic. You should maintain awareness when you’re walking on the sidewalk as well which will lead me to my next point in a later tip. If you have a loved one with you whether that’s a romantic partner or a family member who might be more vulnerable, consider putting yourself closer to the street and have them be at your side closer to the building. If they’re older, don’t move as well, or have to take a call or answer some texts, it would be the wise thing to do to have them walk by your side away from the street especially if they’re distracted by something else. While this tip isn’t very popular, I find that it makes a lot of sense and can enhance your awareness.

  1. Face towards the entrance of the café or restaurant

Maybe you’re out at a café enjoying a nice coffee or at a restaurant celebrating your birthday, regardless of the circumstance involved, I recommend that when your sitting at a table or a counter or a bar, try to always face towards the entrance or exit to be aware of what’s going around you. Restaurants, cafes, and bars can be loud, distracting, and disorientating but it’s key to your personal safety to know where the entrances and exits are at all times in case of an emergency. Emergencies are unlikely to happen in these public settings but it’s better to be safe than sorry by knowing who’s coming in and who’s leaving. It’s also good to scout out the additional entrances and exits of the place you’re at if you can do a walk-around after you arrive.

If you are in a big group or a larger party of people at a restaurant or bar, try to do your best to sit facing the exit as well. It can be more difficult, but most people are not aware of this safety tip, but it shows that you are being responsible in caring for the safety of the group by looking at what’s going on around you. While it is extremely unlikely that anything bad would happen in a restaurant or a bar or café, you are at a significant disadvantage to react to any situation if you are facing towards the wall or towards the kitchen. What would even be worse leads me to my third tip involving using the smartphone at these kinds of places instead of minding your surroundings or paying attention to the people with you or around you.

  1. Put the phone away in public as much as possible

Your smartphone can be a big hindrance to both your awareness in public of potential dangers and hazards as well as making you an easier target for theft or robbery. While it is usually safe to use your phone in most places, depending on the city or country, you may want to leave it at home or wait until you’re at a café, bank, or a restaurant to use it. To walk around with it and advertise its value is an increased risk which you may want to do without. While it can be helpful in mapping out your location and where you need to go next, it can highlight the fact that you are a tourist or are not aware of your surroundings even more.

On top of that, walking with your phone out is not a good idea because you will be completely unaware as to what is going on around you in terms of cars, buses, bikes, motorcycles, or potential street hazards. Having your phone out not only compromises your safety but your awareness as well. Try to memorize your immediate area so you will not be tempted to use your phone as much. Also, even when you are out at a restaurant, café, or bar, it is best to use your phone sparingly so as to not distract yourself from your surroundings or from your friends or family who are out with you. Your phone is a great tool, but it can take away from your public safety very easily if you use it too much or make it obvious as to how much street value it has.

My key point in writing this article is to make sure you don’t fall victim to some sort of accident or tragedy because you weren’t paying attention. You should always be striving to be aware of your surroundings and to make it a personal priority to maintain vigilance in public. Things can happen very quickly and it’s extremely important these days to stay ready in case something happens unlikely as that may be. Use these tips at your own discretion and if you would like to add your own public safety tips, please feel free to do so in the comments section.

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