The wearing of face masks has been an integral part of the defence armoury of almost every country around the globe in the nation’s fight against the insidious Covid-19 invader. And despite the rays of hope that come with the promise of a vaccine, it seems that for the foreseeable future, masks will remain a feature of our daily dress. But is it just me who is struggling to normalise the vision of crowds of people wearing masks as they go about their daily routines? Why is it that the sight of the console operator at the service station serving customers while speaking through a flimsy piece of facial fabric triggers an emotional response of anxiety and fear?
Perhaps my unease with a sea of masks is simply a question of social conditioning? After all, in a medical setting, the masks of treating clinical staff means someone is sick, ill or injured and in a bad way. While on the idiot-box or big screen, apart from a few superhuman caped crusaders, the characters associated with masks are generally the bad guys. Who could forget the terror of Hannibal’s muzzle in The Silence of the Lambs? Or the horror of Predator’s mask from the movie Predator? And then there’s the dread of Ghostface from Scream. Or the sinister mask worn by Tom Hardy in The Dark Knight Rises. Even Zorro’s iconic eye mask sends shivers down the spine.
And the consternation got me wondering; is my disquiet at the vision of masks really caused by the absence of facial expression or the comforting quell of a sly smile or flash of pearly whites? There’s plenty of research out there which tells us that humans struggle to recognize emotions when masks are being worn – so perhaps it’s the loss of confidence in being able to take the temperature of the room that fuels my discomfort in a room full of masks? Or is it simply that without the solace of a smile my emotional response is one of apprehension and uncertainty?
Perhaps the bigger question is whether future generations will perceive masks as symbolic of good or evil? And will the emotional response be one of calm or alarm?
A friend who possesses far greater emotional intelligence than I recently took issue with my aversion to masks. Rather than seeing them as symbolic of something fearsome she sees them as emblematic of hope, unity and aspiration. She argues that masks are now an iconic symbol of the wave of humanity rising up to the challenge that these Corona virus cells presented to us in what will forever be known as the 2020 Covid-19 global pandemic. Perhaps we do join the club, one by one, or family by family, to quietly join a global committee that has, at its heart, the mission to conquer an invisible, sly enemy. This committee has already been doing its bit in the new world economy to deliver peace offerings in the form of masks to those nations and peoples who were struggling to manufacture enough to help their infection rates stabilise.
Huge crates filled with millions of surgical face masks are flying across the globe courtesy of China to Italy, the European Union to Wuhan, Alibaba online selling guru Jack Ma to the United States and Spain as well as the likes of travel company trip.com sending one million masks to Canada, France, Korea and Japan with the inspiring mantra attached: Many ways, to join one journey. Many origins, to reach one destiny. Many friends, to form one family. Many endeavours, to win one victory.*
Who would have thought a flimsy piece of polypropylene would ever be worth so much? Or mean so much in the current campaign to see humanity win this viral war?
It’s a rather beautiful idea that such a small, portable, no-hard-edges item that has, albeit even taken away our smiles, can be the symbol for our resolve to beat this virus, keep ourselves safe and protect our neighbours. While it once invoked fear, separation and infection, in the future it may symbolise the unification of our nation in fighting a common foe. Covid-19 harbours no discrimination against skin colour, age, sexuality, political persuasion or religion. And now, with face masks helping us along maybe we will start to do so as well. Just make sure your eyes are doing the smiling!
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