Six months in, and they’re suddenly everywhere. Almost as pervasive as the free-floating, invisible virus itself are the middle-aged men who don’t know how to behave during a pandemic. Adding a layer of complication and unnecessary distress to today’s ordeal, these guys take your pandemic and raise you one. We now have a mandemic.
There are two enemies outside today: the effing beast of a virus and the fumbling male boomer who either can’t stand the thought of being constrained in any way or is simply 100 percent clueless when it comes to his own behavior.
I go to the grocery store, the drugstore and the town transfer station (aka the dump) once a week. When we’re feeling particularly wild on a Saturday night, I’ll slip into my tactical gear and deploy to the local pizzeria for takeout. We all know what this is like. You’re stepping into a giant video game with little control and very high stakes.
It would be difficult and stressful enough if everyone just naturally played by the rules, the way they do in those orderly countries whose prime ministers happen to be women, like Denmark and Norway, standing six feet apart when possible, wearing a mask.
But for a multitude of fascinating and disturbing reasons, not everyone does this. In my experience, I’d say on a good day it’s about 50 percent. And from personal observation and shared anecdotes, it’s mostly millennial and boomer dudes who are the ones you have to watch out for.
Take the millennial at the grocery store who wanders aimlessly, mask-free, bumping into me and others like a pinball. Or the boomer at the dump who is so vexed by his empty bottles that he insists on squeezing by and racing ahead of some poor masked woman just trying to toss her yogurt containers. Then there’s the preppy guy impatiently pacing in line for pizza, trying to cover his face with his jacket while he two-steps all over the shop, the rest of us bobbing and weaving, head down trying our best to shrink. Let’s face it, we are surrounded by thoughtless male vectors.
My experience with this cohort started early. Due to his monumental childcare mistakes and a profound lack of interest in finding and keeping full-time employment, my mom sent my dad packing when I was four years old. But this didn’t make me more suspicious of men. In fact, a grown man has to do something pretty bad for me to criticize or judge. A friend can point out that a male coworker mansplains, manterrupts, minimizes or ignores, but if I’ve gotten the slightest glimpse that he’s also a good father and provider who goes home to his family every night, well I’ll defend him like I would the joys of a warm blanket or a whiskey sour.
I know, pathetic, but it’s real. But this mandemic behavior? This inability to even entertain the notion of empathy and collective well-being? Not okay.
My theory on why this virulent strain is so widespread? Based on zero evidence or scientific research, I think it has a lot to do with vulnerability. This little tiny invisible organism has infected 4.85 million and killed 159,000 in the US alone. This microscopic speck is not something you can shoot with a gun or kick in the head or build walls to keep out. And it simply does not care who you are, it’s coming for you. You can’t show dominance over this threat by acts of strength or fortitude. So what’s left? Showing that you’re too tough, too invincible to follow basic rules of safety. Men whose deepest fear is being vulnerable to threat are managing the current one by manspreading their germs and unmasked faces and ungloved hands all over everyone else’s 6-foot bubbles.
A debilitating fear of appearing vulnerable, combined with an off-the-charts level of insecurity, is a potent combo that has left us navigating a maze of infected, sickly male egos. Avoid them like the plague. And the great irony is that in the same way some people think they need to be obnoxious and bossy to show they have power, these mask-free space invaders communicate loud and clear that they’re the opposite of tough. What could be more strong and powerful than being secure enough to show the world you have empathy for others? Don’t the roles that define the masculine stereotype include that of protector? Then protect us — step back and put on your mask.
To the heroes of the scientific community, thank you for working 24/7 on a vaccine. But in the meantime, is there some sort of mantiseptic we could get? Maybe a spray or some wipes? It would fly off the shelves like toilet paper in March.
Maria Baugh is the former executive managing editor of Cosmopolitan and Glamour and former executive editor of InStyle magazine. She lives in New York with her wife Liz and rescue dog, Lucky.