Covid-19: What you must know every day
“Behind this mask there is more than just flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea... and ideas are bulletproof.”
That’s Alan Moore in V for Vendetta, and it’s only apt that a column on masks starts with a Moore-ism.
The Guy Fawkes masks worn by V in the book (and then in the underwhelming movie of the same name) became the symbol of resistance and protests after being adopted by the fragmented Occupy movement in the early 2010s. Everyone was suddenly wearing one.
There’s another connection too. We’ve always associated masks with superheroes – with the extraordinary. And Moore created the greatest superhero comic ever, Watchmen, along with illustrator Dave Gibbons.
The coronavirus disease has changed our perception of masks – despite claims through March and even some part of April that they weren’t really necessary. And this wasn’t only in the US; India’s health ministry too maintained that line for some time.
Now, everybody wears masks. You don’t have to be extraordinary, or a deviant, or a thief, or want to hide your identity to do so. They have become the uniform of the ordinary. Science has established beyond doubt that Covid-19 is primarily transmitted from person to person, and through exhalations. Sure, one can also be infected by fomites (objects and surfaces carrying the infection – usually left there by an infected person) but the chances of this are much lower. Masks, then, are a must for anyone who doesn’t have super powers that give them immunity from the Sars-CoV-2. Kal-El may be immune; we aren’t.
By everybody, I mean everybody sensible. There are idiots who do not wear a mask, or do not wear it all the time when in public, or do not wear it properly – risking not just themselves but others around them as well. A recent study in the Indian Journal of Medical Research says that around 28% of approximately 40,000 people who tested positive for the coronavirus disease in India till April 30 were asymptomatic – with the caveat that the proportion could be higher. In the US, for instance, it is accepted that this proportion is around a third. Worse still, we have learned that even people who show symptoms (eventually) can infect people long before they do so.
There’s only one way to deal with such irresponsible people – give them a wide berth.
Apart from helping us stay safe, masks have also, at least in the short term, restored our anonymity.
Facial recognition algorithms have, for now, been stymied by masks, although, in theory, this is a problem that can be solved as they get more data (which, in this case, will be the selfies of their masked selves that people are so obligingly posting on social media).
Despite everything the creators of these technologies claim, many still continue to have problems with people of colour, Asians, and women. Now, masks, which will continue to be used widely for years (perhaps forever, one part of my brain suggests) have made it even more difficult for them.
Technology will solve the problem in time; it usually does. But enjoy your anonymity in the meantime. It can be liberating.
While on the subject of masks, they can be symbols of other things too, as pointed out by a man some consider the US’s first major African American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar. His poem, “We Wear The Mask”, published in the late 1890s in a collection titled Lyrics of Lowly Life, is perhaps even more apt today, given what’s happening in that country. Here’s its opening part:
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.