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A Good Mask is Hard to Find

Six weeks ago, I was torn. For several days I struggled with what I should do. Finally, I made up my mind.

On March 6, I googled N95 masks. Most of the suppliers were out of stock, but some guy with an American name—Bob, maybe; I don’t remember what he called himself or his “business”—had a 10 pack for sale.

So I took out my credit card and paid for the masks: $134.98. Thirteen and a half bucks a mask, the best price I could find. (I was told by someone in my employer’s supply chain, through whom I was trying to procure N95s for our free clinic, that in normal times the masks sold for less than a dollar each.)

I know, I know, I shouldn’t have. The masks are needed by frontline providers, the doctors and nurses caring for patients with COVID. But wasn’t I a doctor? And my employer had made a big deal about not having enough N95s; we had to conserve them; they were reserved for “aerosol-generating procedures” such as nebulizer treatments on patients with a definite COVID diagnosis; mere breathing or talking isn’t considered an AGP, despite a fair amount of evidence that it is. If you wore an N95 when management didn’t deem it appropriate, you could be cited—management had already done so, they emphasized—for “failure to work,” prelude, possibly, to being terminated.

Compliance, you know. If Dr. S. is wearing an N95, Nurse N. will want to, too, and the stockpile will dwindle until there really aren’t enough.

But I wasn’t merely thinking of myself, though it crossed my mind to abscond with maybe half of the masks, should I get the chance to serve in New York or New Jersey, a request formally made to my employer and as formally denied. I’m required to “work” from home, phoning a few patients, paid for eight hours but engaged perhaps two, and they need me to prepare for a local surge that isn’t coming. Why do some have so little and others so much?

My mother turned 90 this week, my father will be 90 soon—they started dating at fourteen and were married at 21. My ex-wife is a nurse in Lexington, Ken.; my oldest son lives with her and works as a nurse’s aide; my wife’s mother is elderly and lives alone. Didn’t they need masks, too?

The good physician, said H.L. Mencken, confers absolution without demanding redemption. (Mencken, who liked his cocktails, must have had a very good physician.)

Won’t you be, won’t you be…my physician?

I digress, as my long-suffering friends will attest.

Time passed. A good two weeks. I almost forgot I’d ordered the masks. (In truth, I figured I’d been scammed.) Served me right! And why keep reminding myself of my stupidity, which it was best to forget.

But then, an email informed me my items had shipped! Bob, or whoever he was, wasn’t a scoundrel—true, he’d marked up my masks beaucoup—because the N95s weren’t merely on their way to me but on their way from afar! Across the vast Pacific, from China. The city of Fuzhou, in Fujian Province, to be exact. My estimation of Bob leapt into the stratosphere.

Dude was resourceful.

Bob, my email said, “might” have tracking information for my order, but it wasn’t possible to get in touch with him.

No need. I had faith.

That was a month ago. Over the ensuing two weeks, I drifted from eager anticipation to—more or less—stoic resignation. My masks weren’t coming. The logistics of transport from China had to be complicated, and my package would have had many opportunities to get lost in the mail. And I thought that, just maybe, my marked-up masks had become a pawn, albeit teeny-tiny, in a geopolitical chess match. Perhaps, in retaliation for POTUS’s trade war, the Chinese were holding onto them—a megalomaniacal fantasy that fortunately for me and my patients was short-lived.

(A week ago, the New York Times reported Chinese officials had begun inspecting every shipment of N95s for quality issues prior to export, a policy predicted to delay shipment of this critical gear to hospitals across the globe. The new regs came after European complaints that some Chinese N95s weren’t medical grade. There’d been rumors—see my unmoored musings above—that political considerations had prevented the masks from being shipped, but the buzz wasn’t true. From March 1 through April 4, according to the Times, China exported 3.86 billion masks.)

Be all of this as it may, I’d given up on getting my greedy hands on any masks, of Chinese or whatever provenance. And it wasn’t as if there was nothing else to think about. The world was turning topsy-turvy, and I had to keep up!

So I was surprised when, earlier this week, a package came in the mail. Surprised and titillated, even. A package for me? What could it be? I couldn’t remember ordering anything. That it could contain my N95s didn’t occur.

The package was soft and squishy to the touch—clearly not a book from Amazon, basically the only non-letter mail I ever get. (After hearing the novelist Julia Glass discuss her loathing of Amazon, for ripping off authors, I’d tried Barnes and Noble. But on my second B&N order, I received an explicit graphic novel instead of the literary one I swear I’d ordered, and I switched back. Say what you will about Amazon, they’re great at logistics.)

My wife shared my excitement as I beamed at the package held out in my hands. Oh, boy!

I tore into it and found…a sports bra, pretty and powder blue.

Oh, shit! was my first thought. A former girlfriend’s final act of spite. (I don’t know why this popped into my head, but it did.) But not only could I not recall the bra, it appeared brand new. And the return address on the package, when I put on my glasses and peered close, was Fuzhou, Fujian, China.

I suppose I could file a complaint with American Express, or the Bureau of Consumer Protection, but I think I’ll keep it.

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