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Dubai Municipality has amended the mask mandates for restaurants and other food outlets. Image Credit: Sajila Saseendran/Gulf News

Dubai: It was February 1. Just two days after the UAE reported the first cases of coronavirus infection among four members of a family. They had come from Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the virus outbreak that eventually became a global pandemic.

I was at the clinic that Saturday morning for my regular health checkup. There were already reports of surgical masks being sold out in many pharmacies and shops in the UAE and the Dubai Economic Department had instructed stores not to hike the prices.

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO), which declared COVID-19 a global health emergency on January 30, had not yet advised the public to wear masks to protect themselves from the deadly novel coronavirus (nCoV).

Mask not useful?!

Many people, including some of my colleagues, back then believed that masks were “not really useful”. I remember sending out a message in our WhatsApp group, asking if any of my colleagues wanted me to buy masks for them from the clinic’s pharmacy. “Posting this because of reports of masks going out of stock and considering that we might need them when we go out for coverage in crowded places if, God forbid, the corona issue gets worse,” I wrote.

“Btw, masks are not useful in preventing the virus spread,” replied one of my colleagues. 
I didn’t want to counter it. I just replied: “Ok. I bought it for my peace of mind. Cheers!” “Hope things won’t be that bad,” he replied.

Nobody else seemed interested in that conversation that ended there, but it still remains in my chat history. But things really took a turn for the worse since then.

Yet, it took four months for WHO to recommend the use of masks for the general public to check the spread of COVID-19, which it declared as a global pandemic on March 11. The UAE had made wearing of masks mandatory while going out more than a month before that and now we cannot even think about stepping out of our houses without wearing a mask.

Wait. Can’t we? Yes we can, only if we disregard one of the most important safety rules to protect ourselves and others and don’t care about the Dh3,000 fine. Unfortunately, some are still flouting the rules — out of sheer disregard for lives, laws, fines or all of these.

Sniffers on the streets

Due to various personal issues, I had strictly remained indoors for several months.

During another visit to a clinic on September 12, again a Saturday, I got some free time to look around and observe people on the streets as I was waiting for my husband to finish an ultrasound scan. While I sat in the parked car, I saw many “sniffers” on the streets with their nose exposed above their masks. It was obvious that they wore the masks for the sake of avoiding fines, not to ensure safety — of themselves or others around. Many were wearing masks as their neckbeard. They pulled it down to talk and even cough!

Isn’t it better to raise your voice with your mask on rather than lowering it to your chin and spread the virus through speech droplets, I wondered. You can never know when it gets inside you.

Well, I have no comments about those who cough with their masks resting on their chins!

At the outdoor seating cafés, I still see people with no masks and some with their ‘blue-coloured neckbeards’ chit-chatting with no food on their tables. It might have been before or after they had their food. But, why remove the mask except when you are having food while at an eatery?

When I see them, I remember the latest study by CDC (US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) linking dining out to increased risk of coronavirus infection in the United States.

The local authorities have also taken note of that study. Dubai Municipality has amended the mask mandates for restaurants and other food outlets. It is now binding on the food outlets to ensure visitors wear face masks at all times, except while eating.

No touching the mask please

I keep seeing people hanging masks off one ear as if they are their earrings! I guess many people do it when they make phone calls. Many, many people I’ve met in the past few months have touched the front of their masks, making it pointless to wear them. If they happen to be people with whom I can take the liberty, I do remind them to wear the mask properly or not touch it improperly. I have also used sign language to signal strangers, including children, to raise their masks from their chin at times.

However, what I just couldn’t bear was seeing a group of men and women with a couple of children, whiling the evening away talking and taking selfies right under my building — without masks — when I returned from office one day. I had to report it to the building security on whose intervention those folks pulled their masks out of their pockets and wore them while dispersing.

When I told my husband that I was writing about my experiences with masks, he could relate it to those who treated their masks as a neckbeard — well, over his real beard in his case. “I too had not taken it so seriously when I was back home [in India] until one of my acquaintances became COVID-19 positive in May,” he confessed, as I frowned at him. “Maybe the message hits home when we realise that the virus can hit us anytime,” he said while trying to explain the psychology at work behind such careless acts.

The onus is on us

But that shouldn’t be the case at this point of time when the onus is on us as a community to support the government in fighting this invisible enemy.

Hence, I just want to “wear my heart on my mask” and say ‘make your mask a snug-fit on your face and save yourself and others. It is not your earring or neckbeard’.

Remember those CN95 masks I bought in February? They came in handy when I had to make hospital runs in March and April with suspected symptoms of COVID-19 — even after having taken all the precautions. I tested negative twice, thankfully, though I later developed my own doubts if I had actually contracted the virus, thanks to the lingering impact the infection — or whatever it was — had on my health. Well, that is a topic for another day.

Till then, put on your mask and stay safe!