It’s amazing how a simple and apparently insignificant thing can have such an amazing impact on life. When Victoria declared mask wearing to be mandatory I thought that’s OK not a big issue if it helps solve the problem. I had no idea how it would change things.
Ever since working briefly in Libya and the Arab Emirates in the late 1970s I have wondered what it would be like to live behind a mask. Now I know. Our first experience of masks was visiting our local medical center where my wife had an appointment with the practice nurse. We were to wait outside until called. A figure clad in pale blue plastic and mask appeared at the door. We all now know the coverings are called PPE. My wife asked for Fiona just as I saw the wisp of blonde hair escaping from the mask and I recognized that it was Fiona in disguise. Recognition is the new problem.
We are so used to facial recognition that we take it for granted. Now it’s not available how do we recognize people? I was interested to see that it is becoming common practice for doctors and nurses to tape a picture of themselves to the front of their clothing so that patients see a human being rather than a PPE clad automaton. We might all need to do that soon.
In Victoria we’re limited to walking around our neighborhood inevitably passing people we know, but can we recognize them? Instead of a casual look with immediate recognition we now have to peer intently at passers-by to see if we know them. Add a hat and a pair of sunglasses and recognition is impossible. Maybe we need name tags on our masks like the badges of conference attendees. This is not just a Victorian problem. Elsewhere in Australia and around the world masks are being increasingly prescribed to try to control the virus and we could be in disguise until a vaccine is found
With the mouth hidden the traditional mumbled ‘G’Day’ and a smile is not so effective. As people become more accustomed to life behind their mask habits are changing. Instead of a nod and a smile a wave of the hand is becoming popular. A mumbled ‘G’Day’ is not enough and greetings are now more clear and more audible. There seems to be a new camaraderie born of adversity in the parks and walking tracks. Hopefully it will continue when regulations are eventually relaxed.
As my natural hearing deteriorated with age I became increasingly aware of the extent to which most people naturally lip read. I find it much easier to ‘hear’ if I can see the mouth. Outdoors that is no longer available to me and I see people struggling to communicate in shops. I asked for ‘The Age’ in the local newsagent recently and was offered eggs. It’s not just me having trouble hearing
At first I assumed our masks would just be for a few weeks, but, as we struggle with the issue of ongoing suppression I can see them being mandatory for quite some time, and not just in Melbourne. I’m amazed at the protests against mandatory mask wearing in Spain and the US. Both are countries which have seen severe rates of infections and very high death rates despite what Donald Trump claims. I don’t want to wear a mask any more than the next man but if the choice is between wearing a mask, getting the virus, or shutting down the economy, then it’s a mask for me. We can’t shut down indefinitely and even with an optimistic view of a vaccine the virus doesn’t look like going away anytime soon. I read an expert opinion on herd immunity recently saying that it is unlikely to be achieved without the assistance of a vaccine. Measles was cited as an example where even with a vaccine herd immunity has not been achieved. We could have a long road ahead.
For me the mask is just an hour a day as we take our permitted one hour exercise or our visit to the shops. It’s a minor inconvenience, I can’t imagine how hard and exhausting it must be to do concentrated medical work and be encased in full PPE for 10 hours a day. I don’t think I could do it. We have been taught to really appreciate our medical professionals the hard way.
The interesting thing about the mask is the way it creates a focus on the eyes. A smile with the mouth and a flash of the teeth can be faked easily, but smiling with the eyes is much more revealing of true feelings. Just as our grandchildren peer into our faces to try to understand, we are going to have to look much harder at people’s eyes to recognize them and to understand their feelings. As a child I was always told not to stare, “it’s rude”. In a mask clad world we are going to have to be a bit more rude but from 1.5 meters.
There’s more to living with a mask than meets the eye.