Photography by John Hryniuk
Elizabeth Renzetti is a Globe and Mail columnist. Her latest book is Shrewed: A Wry and Closely Observed Look at the Lives of Women and Girls.
On the red table by the front door of our apartment there’s a tangle of cloth masks: They’re patterned in pinstripe and paisley, floral and stars. Skull and crossbones, which seems a bit too on the nose. No one chooses the skull and crossbones.
It occurs to me that I’ll need a basket for the masks, when winter comes, like the basket we have for mittens and gloves and scarves. Will the masks breed and reproduce and escape in the same haphazard fashion as gloves? Will we still be wearing masks when winter comes? What about the winter after that? The thought fills me with dread.
Once we’re out the door, I ask my husband and teenaged daughter if they’ve remembered their masks. They have not. At least we have something new to fight about instead of who forgot their keys. Masks are retrieved and again we set out.
For the past two weeks, maskenpflicht has been the rule across Germany – facial coverings mandated in shops and on public transit. At least 70 countries have ordered their citizens to mask up to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
As we ride Berlin’s U-Bahn we watch a man wearing a black cloth mask expertly roll a cigarette on his lap. Two weeks ago no one in Berlin wore a mask and suddenly, even in this brattiest of German cities, pretty much everyone is complying. Of course, as soon as he leaves the train he pulls down his mask to stick a cigarette in, which I’m pretty sure is not in the public health guidelines.
It strikes me again what a weird, magnificently complex, irrational species we are. We’re big dumb rubber balls, always trying to bounce back to the height we’d achieved before. The thought is oddly comforting.
I look over at my daughter, her eyes calm above the white stars of her mask, and I panic. Not because I’m worried about the virus – although yes, of course, I’m worried about the virus – but because seeing my child in a mask means recognizing that the future is quite possibly a dark and terrifying place.
I think, not for the first time, what kind of world have I brought you into? And she thinks, because she’s 14, that I am crazy. A mask is just something she puts over her face to protect other people. She’s been wearing one for two weeks at her Berlin high school, which has reopened for in-person teaching two hours a day, two days a week, with students kept 1.5 metres apart. I try to picture the teenagers who a few months ago could have whispered to each other or smiled or flirted or made faces at their teachers.
My daughter shrugs. It’s just a mask, Mum. She doesn’t have my hang-ups. She has not misspent her youth as I did, shrieking at the killers of Halloween and Friday the 13th and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, their faces disguised by bland masks of plastic or dried human skin.
My daughter has for weeks been on the side of the increasing number of public health experts and government leaders who have asked or required citizens to wear non-medical-grade masks in public on the grounds that such coverings can prevent people who have the virus but may not know it from spreading infection to others. As the advocacy group Masks4All puts it, “My mask protects you, your mask protects me.” Remarkably quickly, the parts of the world that viewed masks with suspicion have adapted to them; just as quickly, and perhaps just as predictably, wearing a mask has become a political act.
You could call it political, but equally it’s tribal. Not in the old sense of tribal masks, worn during rituals to turn the wearer into an animal or a spirit ancestor, but in a new and less wholesome way, to differentiate mask-wearers from mask-spurners. Sheeple vs. Covidiots. The progressives, allied to science and reason and community solidarity, vs. the lovers of individual liberty, the questioners, the rebels. Of course, that’s reductive but it’s also true. Required to radically and quickly change our behaviour in ways that we find unsettling, we’ve fallen back on humanity’s favourite comforting pastime, picking a team.
That team, in the West, used to be resolutely anti-mask. “There’s this long tradition in law and Western culture of associating masks with disguise, deceit, deception, concealing identity, avoiding surveillance,” says Alison Matthews David, director of the graduate fashion program at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “It really does have a lot of negative connotations historically for Western culture.”
Dr. Matthews David is in the process of writing a book and mounting an exhibition at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto on the subject of clothing and criminality. Historically, a person coming at you with a covered face was up to no good. Those perceptions have changed. Now the person wearing a mask – Dr. Matthews David’s is a cheery shocking pink – is doing so to protect your health, not theirs. “The perception has shifted really quickly,” she says, “from being something that was associated with fear and potential danger to something that is associated with protection and security. I’m definitely now more afraid of people not wearing one.”
And yet, Dr. Matthews David says wryly, she is keenly aware of her “mask privilege.” That is, as a middle-class white woman, she (and I) can blithely walk the street under facial cover without being worried about being assaulted, or worse. The same cannot be said of North Americans of Asian descent, against whom hate crimes are rising, and whose mask-wearing seems like a particular goad to racists. Mask-wearing is also problematic for black men and other members of over-policed communities. Aaron Thomas wrote in the Boston Globe that he wants to wear a mask in public, “But then my voice of self-protection reminded me that I, a black man, cannot walk into a store with a bandanna covering the greater part of my face if I also expect to walk out of that store.”
Similarly, we in Canada have not Houdini-ed ourselves out of the knotty philosophical trap presented by Quebec’s ban of most public servants from wearing visible religious symbols, such as the niqab, while at the same time endorsing masks, as Premier François Legault has just done. So, is facial covering a transgression against our shared ideals or … is it not? I can’t imagine what the difference between the two situations might be.
What a lot of weight to place on a piece of cloth. Because we’re human, we can’t help but imbue every activity and adornment with meaning. One day, some future Margaret Mead will fill volumes by studying the mask drama in the United States, which – I say this with no pleasure – creeps every day closer to horrorscape. A security guard in Michigan was killed because he asked a customer to adhere to the state’s policy of wearing a mask indoors. In California, a man was arrested for wearing a KKK hood in a grocery store, later telling authorities that it was some kind of libertarian protest against compulsory masks.
This Swiftian level of satire – man wears racist hood in order not to have to wear innocuous mask – can be followed all the way up America’s chain of command to the chief dingaling himself, Donald Trump, who is refusing to wear a mask, in defiance of public health guidelines. He literally toured a mask-making factory, maskless, while the song Live and Let Die played over the loudspeakers. This is asking for the gods of irony to strike you dead, but Mr. Trump knows his tribe: 59 per cent of Republicans are wearing masks as opposed to 76 per cent of Democrats. This toddler theatre plays out in the highest offices of the United States, with a large number of Republican senators defiantly unmasked while Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi matches hers to the blush pink of her sharply cut suit.
People’s decision to wear masks may be tribal on one level, but honest confusion has arisen over changing advice from health bodies, expert arguments about the efficacy of non-surgical masks to prevent disease spread, and a hodge-podge of rules and regulations depending on where you live. This, as it happens, is nothing new. In the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, Canadians also received different advice about whether to wear masks, depending on where they lived. Mask-wearing “wasn’t very widespread [across Canada] but it was mandated that people wear masks in public in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and in Alberta people were fined if they didn’t,” says Mark Humphries, an associate professor of history at Wilfrid Laurier University and the author of The Last Plague: Spanish Influenza and the Politics of Public Health in Canada. By spring of 1919, Dr. Humphries says, “masks had disappeared across North America.”
Masks have held more of a central place in different cultures. In Japan, the wearing of masks has had cultural significance beyond protecting against illness, pollution and pollen – it’s also a sign of respect and solidarity with other members of the community. In China, as early as 1911, a doctor was recommending the use of gauze masks against outbreaks of pneumonic plague, and although they fell out of general use they were taken up again in the wake of the SARS epidemic of 2003. “The mask was invariably racialized and construed in the Western media as a distinctly ‘Asian’ phenomenon,” writes Maria Shun Ying Sin in her 2014 paper, Masking Fears: SARS and the Politics of Public Health in China. “In the Western media, the mask was often implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – pitted against ideas of transparency, truth, sincerity, and authenticity.”
Here we are again, having those discussions. The psychological shift toward viewing masks as symbols of safety is well under way, however, and their power may lie in that symbolism as much as their public health benefits.
Dr. Humphries says, “How do you let people know it’s safe to leave their homes? Masks play an important role in that, and they played an important role in 1918. We see medical officers at the time saying that if wearing a mask makes you feel safe, and makes you feel like you can leave your house, then in many ways it doesn’t matter if the mask works or not. It makes you feel safe. You can go on with your life.’’
And what about that life? How radically is it going to change? Every corner store Nostradamus is predicting an unimaginably altered future, postpandemic. But perhaps not, as Dr. Humphries says: “I can tell you that every prediction that came out of 1918 about the lasting effects of that flu and how the world would change – none of them ever transpired. Society is like an elastic, it snaps back very quickly.”
I, for one, find this extremely comforting. I will gladly wear a mask in public for as long as necessary – marking my inclusion in the reason-loving tribe of sheeple – but for purely selfish reasons I will be extremely glad to never have to wear one again, once we have a vaccine. Masks are claustrophobic. They make my glasses fog up. I now have 20 useless lipsticks rolling around in the bottom of my purse. I want to see my children’s faces in the sunlight again.
Also, I feel less me. For example, I’m a baby smiler. I like to get a good smile volley going with strange babies. The other day in the grocery store, amid a sea of masked Berliners, I spotted a baby in a stroller, not crying, just the right age for a little expressive back-and-forth. I waved my fingers at him and his face immediately crumpled in fear as if I were Pennywise, the clown from It. I realized that with my mask and my fogged glasses, I’d probably caused him to need a new diaper. This is not the world I want to live in.
But this, for the moment, is the world we do live in. Some of us bravely put on masks and go to work. Others are making masks, to help address the shortage. One of those people is my sister-in-law, Lauren McKinley Renzetti, an artist and teacher who’s been making and giving away free cloth masks for the past couple of weeks. She’d been slightly horrified that more people weren’t wearing masks on the streets of Toronto and thought it might be because they didn’t know where to find them or couldn’t afford them. So – you have to know Lauren – she took matters in her own hands.
Each mask takes just three minutes to make on her sewing machine, and she’s given away hundreds so far. She hangs them from clothes pegs on a line in front of her house next to a sign that says, “Free reuseable cloth masks! Save your life & someone else’s.” People stop and take one, and sometimes ask if they can take another for a friend or coworker. Those who stop are lovely and friendly and grateful, although one woman made a U-turn when she saw the masks and nearly killed a guy walking his dog.
“You’re a good human,” I tell Lauren, and I can almost see her shrug her shoulders when she says, “I think everyone is. Or they’re trying to be.” We hang up and I think about how much I miss my tribe, and how much I hope we get to be old and grey and smiling at babies in a world that no longer needs those masks.
In depth: The art of masking
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