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.