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Passengers wear protective masks while waiting for their plane at an airport in Baghdad, Iraq, on March 4, 2020.The Associated Press

Smiling is such an important way to make a human connection, especially in a foreign country. It’s the equivalent of saying “I know we may look different, and I’m obviously not local, but I come in peace.” Smiling is so fundamental that I’ve never really given it much thought, but now that I’m wearing a mask, I find myself having to work harder to convey my friendliness and compassion. My mouth underneath the mask has to be in a very big smile for my eyes to really convey that smile and make that connection. I’ve also become a bit of a head nodder – an extension of what my eyes are trying to communicate. This is the new normal – life behind the mask.

I’m caught in the coronavirus net in an airport in Asia while returning home to Canada. Although Myanmar has no known cases at this point, everyone’s wearing a mask, even me. Luckily, I was able to source one before I got to the airport. Everything looks familiar and yet strangely different in this surreal world. It’s surprising how a small piece of paper can de-humanize a face, and effectively cut us off from each other. It goes against all the tenets of social interaction we embrace. I’m conflicted between trying to be friendly behind the mask and act as if nothing is wrong, while at the same time quelling a rising panic that is pushing reason from my brain. Every masked person reinforces irrational images of a rasping cough, high fever, hospitalization, intubation and eventual death.

I dare not cough myself, not even the sleeve cough, concerned about accusing eyes turning to me, singling me out, sizing me up as a candidate for a 14-day quarantine.

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Behind this mask, the air I’m breathing is stale and hot, recycled over and over in the few square inches of paper that cover my nose and mouth. The stuffy air blows directly into my eyes, making them dry and scratchy. I dare not rub them or lower the mask of breaking this fragile cone of protection. But then I realize my eyes are exposed. Surely, I’m thinking, a pair of goggles would be essential if we’re really going to go the full nine yards of protection against this scourge. It would relieve my eyes to just close them and go to sleep. Curling up and cocooning into myself seems like a good option. But this would only further cut me off from the rest of the world.

My hands are raw from frequent washing. Hand sanitizer, which I used to reject as environmentally unfriendly and unnecessary, I now use with alarming frequency. I know logically that it’s not possible to completely avoid handling things in between each cleansing, so I try to be diligent about not touching my eyes or mouth, or eating anything with my hands. I admit that all this mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing has taken some of the joy out of travel, and I’m debating whether I should cancel the upcoming trips I have planned. I love experiencing different countries and cultures, but here in the airport, I am unsettled enough to consider promising myself to never travel again.

I carefully make my way through the airport, and as soon as I get on the plane, I swab the deck – handrests, tray, screen – with a disinfectant towel, and watch while other people do the same. This plane has never been so clean. My daughter, who is 29, and has the advantage of youth, invincibility and a strong immune system, even lets me clean her space.

On the flight home, I don’t speak to my neighbour who, like most other people on the plane, is also wearing a mask. In this cramped space, I usually encourage a conversation, or at least a greeting, and enjoy meeting new people. The close quarters are normally conducive to conversation, but now the entire plane feels more like a Petri dish of germs, all eager to start a relationship with me, so I refrain. Besides, it’s more difficult to talk with a mask. Words come out sounding muffled and I find myself shouting and working hard to enunciate. It’s just too much effort. Most people, I notice, close their eyes and go to sleep. It’s probably the safest thing to do.

When I arrive home, I thankfully rip off the mask. Even though I don’t think anyone coughed or sneezed on me, I’m careful to hold it by the ear straps, just in case, as I toss it into the garbage. I wash my hands thoroughly for 20 seconds, including under the nails, and breathe a sigh of relief. Now that I’m safely home, I’m rethinking that promise to never travel again.

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