Of masks and masking

  • Musings
  • Sunday, 26 Jul 2020

Political face-off: A woman protesting against wearing face masks in the United States. — AP

MASKS strapped, we venture out into the world with a sense of trepidation.

Will this little piece of pulp fibre be enough to protect us from the unseen enemy? Will that vicious virus settle on the front of our face covering only to lift off, scatter and settle on our noses just as we remove that mask in relief? Will the mask really protect us or merely lull us into a sense of uncomfortable comfort?

Every day when I strap on my newly-ordered cotton vintage-print masks, my mind turns to what masks really mean in these much-changed times.

On the one hand, masks protect both the wearer and those they encounter. We watch on TV in puzzled amazement at Americans adamant that they will not don them because they object to the government telling them what to do, even when it’s for their own good.

Sometimes they invoke God as the reason why they will not cover up. I read aghast about a 30-year old man who died from a Covid-related illness after attending a “Covid party”. Believing that the virus is a hoax, he had gone to mingle with presumably asymptomatic Covid-infected people. We now know that you don’t have to show symptoms to infect others.

Then there was the French bus driver who was beaten to death merely for telling some passengers to wear masks while on board his bus. Has the world gone mad?

The pandemic seems to have made humans lose their bearings completely. Or perhaps it has only blown the lid off what was already smouldering underneath, that we do in fact harbour a tendency towards selfishness, viciousness and prejudice.

Masks do not only protect, they also conceal. They hide smiles and grimaces alike, unless we are very adept at interpreting the crinkles by the eyes.

But we don’t need physical masks to hide the character of a person, that has the ability to reach out beyond any facial covering and reveal itself. We only need eyes to see beyond the superficial, the outer skin of a person, the slick presentation designed to convey an impression to particular audiences.

Since February this year, besides the masking of faces for everyone’s protection, we’ve also seen the unmasking of the true nature of those we once trusted. What Trojan masks were put on to suppress real intentions! What sleight of hand to unveil the beast that brooks no dissent, that blithely whips up hatred and imposes the most callous cruelty on helpless people.

Yet so many, after being told that they will be protected by a piece of cloth, and soap and water, willingly acquiesce and even cheer on the beasts, tut-tutting instead at those who see through the thin veils. Caring only about the here and now and not the long-term miseries so discreetly planted in our midst by our seemingly gentle “father” and his thuggish cohorts.

In the rest of the world, the unmasked have revealed their full selves, not even bothering to cover their disdain for those who think differently. We stand alone in being both masked and unmasked, concealing our true intentions with a benign paternalism. But it’s a care that is reserved for only some, even though the virus is the great leveller and differentiates between no one.

Our lives have changed in just a few short months. We are now trained to become paranoid about a being so minute that we cannot see it, while at the same time blinding ourselves to equally dangerous ones within sight. We also wilfully shut our eyes to how much we have removed ourselves from the openness and hospitality that we used to be proud of, to being not only closed-minded but actively and proudly showing how we allow our basest instincts to inflict cruelty on others. And we don’t even consider the idea that we are being manipulated, not to our own benefit but to the advantage of a few.

We laugh at an orange clown called Trump for whom facts, science and expertise don’t matter because they don’t serve his political agenda. But do we also ignore facts and logic for the same ends? If social distancing and wearing masks is what helps to stop a pandemic in its tracks, how do we justify detaining people in crowded centres and then blaming them for getting infected? Our latest policy is to once again impose hotel quarantines on those returning from abroad, an unacknowledged sign that it is our own people, not foreigners, who are arriving with the virus.

There seems to be an inability to think through policies by those who make them. If it is now illegal to rent accommodation to illegal immigrants (by which they mean refugees, people whose visa ran out during the MCO and are unable to renew them, those who cannot leave the country because we closed the airports and those migrant workers whose work permits got revoked because their employers closed down their projects), it means that people get thrown out into the streets, with no shelter. We don’t need any foreign media to tell us that the sight of poor starving people, including children, sleeping in our streets isn’t good for our image. Instead we should emulate the judge who recently declined to impose the whipping sentence on some refugees, recognising that they had already suffered enough, and we need not add to their misery. Compassion does still exist.

Although the future looks mostly dark at the moment, we may well recover from this pandemic, provided we have a government that can manage it competently. But the real question is, will we ever recover from the pandemic of greed and hate that has also been unleashed?

Marina Mahathir is a social activist. The views expressed here are solely her own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Star.

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Marina Mahathir , musings column


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