If COVID-19 were to be completely erased from the face of the earth tomorrow, would we throw away our masks?
Never before in history has one species been so universally delighted to cover their mouths.
At the beginning of 2020, in the 'pre-COVID' world, we lived in gay abandon. We shook hands, hugged people, slapped backs, shared drinks and smiled with bare faces up close. At the time of writing, this distant memory of free will and carefree living was only actually eight or nine months ago. Can we - will we - ever return to those blissful, golden, halcyon days?
The speed at which human beings - from Cape Town to Alaska, Sydney to Rio - have willingly accepted facial imprisonment is astonishing. There has been very little social discourse on the health, social, interpersonal and economic long-term impacts of the face mask. In some parts of the world, political leaders have refused to wear them, or they have shown indifference to their efficacy. A great many medical professionals - perhaps most - would say that face masks help to stop the spread of the virus. Rightly or wrongly, those who refuse to wear them for personal, social, medical or political reasons have been vilified and often demonised by the mainstream media and mainstream political discourse. To be an 'anti-masker' is to be a 'red neck', stupid, selfish and even dangerous.
My point is not to question whether or not a face mask is efficacious (my own view is that they probably are, to some extent) - it is to highlight how extraordinarily emotive the subject has become and how society has become so attached to the notion that to wear a mask is virtuous. In some countries, such as the USA, to mask or not to mask has become political. 'Trumpers' are accused of being dangerous backwater super spreaders, hounded on social media and forced off buses and out of shopping malls by braying crowds.
So, at what point will our new mask-loving society be happy to put down the mask? Will we wait to be told by world leaders and global bodies that its now ok to throw away the surgical kit and kiss each other on the cheeks like excited Italians? Have we outsourced our own sense of risk to the experts? Who will decide when it is ok to walk into a shop with our lips and noses showing?
It is highly probable that some public spaces will retain mask policies even after the pandemic (I'd put money on it) because we have learnt that it's just cleaner and safer anyway - and why risk getting the winter flu when we can just pop on a mask? Moreover, how dare a non-masker give me the winter flu when I have taken the precaution of wearing a mask? Surely it is safer for everybody for all of us to be advised (or compelled) to wear a mask all of the time? Or perhaps public policy will adapt to mandate mask wearing indoors between October and April to stop the old and vulnerable from catching the winter flu? Or, perhaps the regular flu is an accepted risk?
What this really boils down to is a serious question of choice and personal responsibility. What kind of viruses should trigger a return to national mask wearing and when? Which viruses are we happy for the vulnerable to catch and possibly die from? Maybe we will see nuanced public health warnings: when the temperature drops below 8 degrees Celsius and the wind exceeds 20mph, you must wear your face mask.
The truth is, many people are already converted and simply prefer to wear a mask. But, the decision is not ours to make and never will be: it will come through the political decisions of leaders with elections to win, pharmaceutical companies with vaccines to develop and a 24-hour news cycle that feeds off fear. Given the enormous success that these powers have had in turning an entire species into a mask wearing terrified mob, it is likely that COVID or no-COVID, the masks are here to stay.