The global march of face masks: a mirror on humanity

Updated 25 Jul 2020


Shoppers wear face masks in Covent Garden, central London on July 24, 2020, as lockdown restrictions continue to be eased during the Covid-19 pandemic. — AFP
Shoppers wear face masks in Covent Garden, central London on July 24, 2020, as lockdown restrictions continue to be eased during the Covid-19 pandemic. — AFP

SAINT LAYE: House keys, wallet or purse, mobile phone and .... oh, yes: face mask.

Reluctantly for many, but also inexorably in the face of a deadly invisible enemy, small rectangles of flimsy yet live-saving tissue have in mere months joined the list of don’t-leave-home-without-them items for billions around the world.

Not since humans invented shoes or underwear has a single item of dress caught on so widely and quickly from Melbourne to Mexico City, Beijing to Bordeaux, spanning borders, cultures, generations and sexes with almost the same Earth-shaking speed as the coronavirus that has killed more than 600,000 and infected more than 15 million.

There has, perhaps, never been such a rapid and dramatic change in global human behavior,” says Jeremy Howard, co-founder of #Masks4All, a pro-mask lobbying group. Humanity should be patting itself on the back.

But rarely, also maybe never, has anything else worn by humans sparked such furious discord and politicking, most notably in the United States. Did anyone on an American beach ever pull a gun on someone for wearing a bikini, as an unmasked man did on a masked shopper this month at a Florida Walmart? As such, like other human habits, the mask has become a mirror on humanity. That so many people, with varying degrees of zeal, have adapted to the discomfort of masking their airways and facial expressions is powerful medicine for the belief that people are fundamentally caring, capable of sacrifice for the common good.

From Marsha Dita, a social media freelancer in Jakarta, Indonesia, comes a view succinctly put, and increasingly widely shared: “This is not the time to be selfish.

Yet also apparent from outbreaks of fierce resistance to masks, especially in democracies, is this: Plenty of people don’t like being told what to do and distrust the scientific evidence that masks curb contamination.

Cries that masks muzzle freedom have been vociferously aired at rallies in the United States, Canada and, last Sunday, in London. There, a speaker at a protest against the introduction this Friday of mandatory mask-wearing in Britain’s stores argued: People die every year. This is nothing new.” Scepticism shared by, among others, Mohammed al-Burji, a 42-year-old civil servant in Lebanon. Walking to work without a mask, violating laxly enforced rules that they be worn everywhere outside the home, he said: There is no coronavirus, brother. They’re just deceiving people.

The country has reported over 3,100 infections and 43 deaths, and senior officials have made public appeals for people to stick to mask wearing and social distancing. The same human reflexes that cause people to size up each other’s fashion choices, haircuts and alike on first meeting are now instinctively applied to masks, too.

In Mexico City, Estima Mendoza says she cannot help but recoil at people without masks. I feel defenseless. On one hand I judge them and on the other I ask myself Why? Mendoza said. As human beings, we always judge.

As a Black Muslim woman in France, Maria Dabo knows that feeling all too well. For her, the adoption of masks has had an unexpected but welcome side effect: She no longer feels such a standout in the country that has legislated to prevent Muslim women from wearing face-covering veils. With masks required in all indoor public spaces, the French far-right’s long obsession with Islamic veils has been muted.

Published in Dawn, July 25th, 2020