The way objects have been left on the pavement has been an interesting and unfortunate side-effect of the pandemic. Scientists are concerned that the growth in use of single-use masks and gloves, in particular, is creating a wave of “Covid-waste”, but I’ve seen hand sanitiser and filters as well. None of these products are biodegradable, and all pose risks to others when clearing them up.
Sometimes these objects land in ways that are striking, even sculptural. The stories they suggest are evocative. Who wore them? Why did they take them off? What happened next?
This doesn’t, however, change the core messages. Firstly, wear a mask (it protects others while their masks protect you). Secondly, take your rubbish home (discarded masks and gloves are a health hazard to clear up).
As we emerged out of lockdown, one of the striking changes for many was the profusion of signage and other reminders to change one of our most basic instincts – to be close. The change started in February, as we were advised to keep 1m apart (still the WHO standard). But shortly after, government advice changed to 2m, and then in May it changed again to 1m+ – if you have to be at closer proximity, ensure you take other measures to protect yourself and others from the virus.
“Maintain at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between yourself and others. Why? When someone coughs, sneezes, or speaks they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person has the disease.”
But of course this depends on people being able to estimate distance accurately. So 2m was an excellent choice for public consumption: even if people were at less than this distance they had some margin before they were at risk. As in the image below, the public quickly adapted to the concept, though estimations of the distance were erratic.
The major obstacle in implementing this was described in detail by the _Streets research group at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture: only 36% of London streets had sufficiently wide pavements. In this context, necessary street furniture – bins, trees, lamp-posts, bus shelters, benches – become obstacles. And the option of stepping into the street is not one really open to many city-dwellers. So we are confronted with choke points: sometimes created by objects bearing the warnings themselves.
These tensions persist. We are hurriedly adapting a city in which living cheek by jowl was a fact of life into one in which we have to be divided from each other for our own safety.
Particularly in the early stages of the pandemic, a lot of people were concerned to point out that what is popularly called social distancing is actually physical distancing. We are no less a society if we have to spread out, no less connected if we must smile with our eyes rather than our mouths.
But more could be done to turn aspirational unity into a reality. The British technology expert Rachel Coldicutt (@rachelcoldicutt) recently tweeted a link to New Zealand’s portfolio of social distancing signage, part of an integrated website which contains clear instructions and guidance for each alert level and downloadable materials to print – a consistent “ecosystem” of signs and alerts which facilitates compliance. Coldicutt highlighted that the UK has yet to develop such a consistent approach. In fact, to continue the metaphor, the UK is more a Darwinian jungle of competing graphics, symbols and designs. At least the graphic design and printing sectors of the economy are being kept in business. Though the translating industry is clearly less of a priority. The New Zealand website has a whole section devoted to translations of the materials into 24 languages. The NHS COVID 19 App launched this week, meanwhile, doesn’t have translation into Polish – though Polish remains the second most common nationality in the UK.
The laissez-faire free market in signage is creating confusion. Neighbouring shops use different measures and different images to inform their customers of what they want them to do. More confusingly, many of those images use identical symbols: the overwhwelming impression is that there are different rules for different people. And in fact this is often actually the case: using my nearest high street as an example, the customers in the greasy spoon at one end are advised to maintain 1m distance, while patrons of the upscale bakery up the road keep 2m apart. There is literally one rule for the poor and another for the rich. I want to explore the different problems associated with the signs themselves separately, so I’ll leave this point for now, but at some point the differential instructions will result in differential outcomes – if indeed they aren’t already. It is part and parcel of the government’s failure to really think beyond the laissez-faire, free-market dogma of its ideology. As long as they can eat cake, it seems, the rest of us can take our chances.
“Ritual is intimately connected with the mask, either in the wearing that hides the true face, or in the adoption of a public face.” – Subhash Kak, ‘Ritual, Masks and Sacrifice’ (2004)
“Masks are boundary objects, mediating between ideas of contamination and con- tainment, purity and pollutions, and life and death. Since the outbreak of COVID‐19, however, they perform a new kind of boundary work: they demarcate and negotiate the relationship not only between the body and the body politic, the individual citizen and the national whole. In the hands of politicians, the political logic of masking reinforces other governmental practices – from the imposition of travel bans, the neglect of migrant populations and stigmatisation of certain minorities – in defining the permeable boundaries between nation and self, self and other from the invading virus.” – Nicolette Makovicky, ‘The national[ist] necropolitics of masks’ (2020)
“I wish to underline that the configuration of this apparatus as a mask of reason was predicated upon the redefinition of what pertains to reason and what not. If it could defend doctors and the general population from plague, this was possible only because it both stopped germs from entering the human body and transformed the public from a superstitious and ignorant mass into an enlightened hygienic-minded population: a population that accepted the contagious nature of the disease and corresponding, often brutal, quarantine and isolation measures.” – Christos Lynteris, ‘Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment’ (2020)
“The mask works by concealing or modifying those signs of identity which conventionally display the actor, and by presenting new values that, again conventionally, represent the transformed person or an entirely new identity.” – Donald Pollock, ‘Masks and the Semiotics of Identity’ (1995)
We live in a changed world, though we may have hardly moved all year. Our work, our leisure time, our homes and our streets have all been changed by the experience of COVID-19. Some changes are positive – lockdown led me to start getting milk delivered, for example, reducing waste and excess packaging. Although I sometimes miss the supermarket, deliveries have become a fact of life.
Other changes – particularly the changes to the built environment – have been sources of tension. The sight of signs in the street warning of disease (while mandating social distancing) are not something any of us is used to, and changes to pavement and public spaces are shifting patterns of behaviour. One-way systems are sources of confusion and tension – and occasional conflict.
The thing that I hope people remember is that those managing these new systems are themselves finding their way. People walking masked through the city may not be aware that their appearance is challenging. Although there may be an occasional sharp intake of breath, we do not need to panic. We need to be kind, and smile above our masks, and offer others a way past if we don’t want to get in each other’s way.
We are all finding our way, and we do not yet even know the destination. It may be that the “old normal” will return shortly with a vaccine. But it may be – and it is probably more likely – that we have to be careful and mindful of our space for a long while yet.
“…foundering halfway between the abyss and the peak, they drifted rather than lived, given up to aimless days and sterile memories, wandering shadows who could only have found strength by resigning themselves to taking root in the soil of their distress.”
“Some predictions were based on bizarre calculations involving the number of the year, the number of deaths and the number of months already spent under the plague. Others established comparisons with the great plagues of history, bringing out the similarities (which these prophecies called ‘constants’) and, by means of no less peculiar calculations, claimed to extract information relative to the present outbreak. But the ones that the public liked best were undoubtedly those which, in apocalyptic language, announced a series of events, any one of which might be the one that the town was currently enduring, their complexity allowing for any interpretation.”
Of all the features of everyday life affected by COVID-19, none has been more contentious than the wearing of face-masks. Although a recent study by King’s College London (‘Becoming “Covid-Secure”‘) suggests that mask-wearing is becoming more normal and more accepted, there is still a significant proportion of people who are either unconvinced or simply unwilling to comply.
Mainly (though not exclusively) on the right of politics, the central objection seems to be an imagined surrender to the will of the state. The collection of cranks and conspiracists styling themselves “Lockdown Sceptics” have devoted a lot of time to the issue, including a particularly reprehensible retooling of Boris Johnson’s dehumanising and offensive arguments against the burka. Despite the evidence that shows masks are effective in preventing transmission, they insist on a misreading of John Stuart Mill, arguing that “you should be able to do what you want provided you do no harm to others” as though that were justification for not engaging in an action primarily intended to protect others. There also seems to be little thought about how this refusal to actually apply their own principle has resulted in the government being forced to impose sanctions when public consent is the desirable outcome.
Being masked is a powerful statement. The invisibility of smiles and the traditional association with anonymity make interaction different. One of the defining images from the peak in April was of medical staff in PPE, their names taped to their fronts. As lockdown eased, I caught myself flinching as I saw three masked men advancing in formation near Kings Cross. They were taxi drivers, in search of coffee, but the mask makes it harder to know what the eyes are saying.
As masks have become more common, however, I’ve noticed more and more people using their masks to show who they are. Slogans, football teams, animals: there are so many ways to turn the mask into another site of expression, another celebration of our diversity. And sometimes the mask actually highlights the eyes, whether they are curious, tired or thoughtful – or at other moments, filled with mischief and humour.
Perhaps in time we will value the new care that has to be spent performing human interaction with only our words and eyes. Perhaps in time we will come to recognise our common humanity more easily, because now we must look more carefully. Perhaps, whatever the distance between us, physical distancing can bring us closer socially. If only we know to look.
31 March 2020 (17:30): I went to get my prescription earlier. Bizarre and stressful. So many people wearing masks and a leaden hush even on Camden High Street. People casting suspicious glances at each other and mostly attempting to make space.
Or, as in the case of these two men, pushing past obstacles. I hope the policeman and the woman are ok, for all their sakes. I crossed the road instead.
A long queue outside Lidl blocks one side of the pavement, shoppers hugging the walls as far as they can. More masks and tension: this city isn’t designed to allow people to spread out. More people outside Poundland: people who don’t have electronic money. They use the cash they earn., which has to be spent in person. Mothers with children they can’t leave safely at home.
Finally I get to the pharmacy and take my place in my first socially-distanced queue. I take out my phone to record the experience and the man in front of me turns to see who’s behind him. He grins behind the mask.
I check behind me and move a pace back to get the person behind me to move. I was already at social distance from the person in front but I can’t think of another way to get them to move without a conversation at close quarters.
Purchases complete, the journey home is a bit less stressful but it’s hard to find a route. People appear from inside buildings and around corners, meaning the calculation is constant: and the road is still busy, limiting the space to move. People in this city just can’t put the distance they need between themselves and others.