France Eiffel Tower
A man wearing a protective facemask looks at the reflection of the Eiffeil Tower on the Seine river, in Paris Image Credit: AFP

When you can walk into a bank with your face covered and demand money and nobody will bat an eye — you know that we are truly living in strange times. And yes, much of 2020 is indeed a strange time.

This is the age of coronavirus, a time when two-third of the world’s population have lived under some form of lockdown or restrictions on movements because of a deadly unseen enemy that lurks in the air, lingers on surfaces and passes between us quicker than a silly video on WhatsApp.

We have all quickly learnt the group gymnastics of social distancing — keeping two metres apart as we perform corona contortions in concert with colleagues.

In times gone by, forges were the source of swords, tempered on anvils and wielded by those to assert personal freedoms. Now, where there are sewing machines, people gather in clusters, cutting and stitching, weaving together the strands of fabric that symbolise resistance to this virus


We have learnt the art of sleeving — coyly slinking down cuffs just enough to be able to grab a door handle that others will have touch or contaminated. And we have all learnt that our lives will never be the same again as long as Covid-19 remains somehow stubbornly in our midst despite scrubbing and bleaching both external and internal surfaces.

Age of the Mask

When historians review our first drafts of this history we are making, make sense of the sights and citing sensible sources, they may very well refer to this as the Age of the Mask. It is our face-saving measure that allows us to mix and mingle with a modicum of normality — if anything about this era is indeed ‘normal’.

But we are all masked now — the necessary price of entry into most public places, the de rigueur rag that shields our inhaled inner fears and exhaled exuberance of being able to retrace the public spaces from where we had been displaced.

Latest on Covid-19

The reality of this virus has imposed a virtual reality where we talk uncovered and relaxed on our phones or laptops, tables and desktops, Zooming together over shaky connections or wobbly wifi.

It is there, at the end of a screen, that we can be ourselves. But when we gather in malls, in plazas, in offices or beyond the comforting confines of our domestic cocoons, we are masked.

For governments and health officials, the issue of masking has greatly divided — but mostly conquered public fears. Yes, they do offer some protection in helping disperse aerosol droplets that may linger in the air from those who are positive.

But even at the top of the public health pyramid, there is divided opinion on the scientific effectiveness of masking. As things stand now, the World Health Organisation has held off from recommending people wear face masks in public after assessing fresh evidence that suggested the items may help to contain the pandemic.

It has constantly reviewed its position on masks as data emerges — one most recent such study from Hong Kong indicating that their widespread use in the community may have reduced the spread of coronavirus in some regions.

Manila lockdown masks
A man peddles face masks at a public market during an enhanced community quarantine to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus in Manila, Philippines Image Credit: AP

WHO's updated guidance

The WHO’s updated guidance advises while masks could help limit the spread of the disease, they were insufficient on their own. There was no evidence that wearing a mask in the community prevented healthy people from picking up respiratory infections including Covid-19, it said.

That’s the WHO — but who knows? The US Centers for Disease Control offers conflicting advice. It urges covering up in public places where physical distancing can be hard to control.

In Germany, the European nation that is rebounding best from this pandemic, masks are mandatory. And in the UAE, masking is a must.

Whatever the science, the reality is that masking does make a difference. I can almost hear a painted and masked Mel Gibson in Braveheart astride a steed urging his men to fight back: “This virus has taken our lives and locked us down, but it can never take away our freedom. Mask up and live …”

In times gone by, forges were the source of swords, tempered on anvils and wielded by those to assert personal freedoms. Now, where there are sewing machines, people gather in clusters, cutting and stitching, weaving together the strands of fabric that symbolise resistance to this virus.

In villages, ladies gather with needle and thread in curled hands and make masks. In garment factories, gowns are fashioned. In garages, 3-D printers are now our lathes of liberty making visors and face shields. And in public places and wherever we gather, we wear masks.

We know each other by our markings — the skyblues, hospital shades of pale green, the bandanaed, the white coned, the designer, the homespun. But we are together comrades in the greatest cover-up of all times.

We do our part. We keep apart. We look the part. We are party to ensuring that we will bounce back and recover and make sure that lives return to normal.

But if you’re going to be part of this great cover-up, do it right. Masking is mandatory. There can be no half-hearted efforts — yes, even if that means muffling your lines or mumbling through whatever adversity malls will throw at you.

There can be no slacking — you must cover your mouth and your nose. It cannot fly at half-mask, limply sagging below the chin like a white flag of surrender to indifference. Wear it with pride. If you can’t cover up, you are complicit.

But whatever you do, please do not follow the example of one poor Kentucky woman, pictured as a petrol station and captured on a video that has some five million views on TikTok. Joe Samman was working at a food mart outside Lexington, Kentucky when she came in to pay for gas. Joe greeted the lady and asked, “Where did you get that mask from?”

“Well since we have to wear them and it makes it hard to breathe,” she explains … “This [cutting it to open the nose and mouth] makes it a lot easier to breathe”.

And for coronavirus to spread. Stay safe.

Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.