Among the Half-Masked
COVID theater is a sign of a healthy society
In Lima’s dusty heat a young man pulled a cart of 7 large sacks, his mask pulled down so he could breath easier. Masking in Peru was the law, including outdoors, and he was doing his best to follow it. With a cheat.
Almost everyone in Lima, especially in the poorer parts of town (where I spent two weeks), was doing the same thing. Masks worn all the time, except when eating, even outside, even when working, but not necessarily covering both the mouth and nose.
While I did hear frustration about Romania’s curfew (9 p.m., it was following a very deadly wave), I rarely heard it about having to wear masks. In any of the countries. Certainly not to the degree you hear in the US (Where I have been yelled at both for wearing and not wearing a mask) or Western Europe.
Why? A few reasons I think.
— There is no country that values individual liberty as much as the US, and parts of Western Europe. Where being you, and doing whatever you want, free from the interference of both the government and broader society, is lauded. While that might be an admirable trait in some spheres of life, it makes public health, which requires collective action, tough. Researchers have come to a similar conclusion, finding
“Specifically, we propose that, net of other factors, people in more collectivistic (versus individualistic) regions are more likely to wear masks, a precautionary measure vital for curbing the pandemic.”
— In the US, especially on Twitter and in media, we have gotten to a point where we have been debating masking for so long we have forgotten that the common sense response to an air-born illness is to mask. It makes sense, especially if you work and live in crowded spaces with lower hygiene. If there is a flu-like disease being spread through the air, you wash your hands and mask. Duh. Not masking is the “well actually midwit big-brain” take.
— Other countries, especially poorer ones, have a lot more experience with health scares and consequently have more faith in their public health infrastructure. Doctors hold a level of respect, admiration, and status, greater than in more developed nations.
The first generation immigrant wanting their child to become a doctor as a sign of success is a thing, that although it might be fading a tad, still holds sway.
Government-run health clinics act as community centers in many poorer neighborhoods and that adds to the idea of them being a positive.
— Debating masking is a first-world problem. If you live in a favella, or spend all day hauling mattresses in Breña, you probably have bigger issues to deal with than the comfort and annoyance of wearing a mask while on a bus, or in the market, or while sanding that VW bug you’ve been sanding for the last few weeks.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be having the debate on masking, or any other COVID policy, it is just keeping a perspective on what we are being asked to do.
Beyond that, what I am more interested in is how people wear their masks. Which is badly. Which makes it more of a symbolic gesture providing mental comfort. That need to do something, to ease your anxiety, to help out, isn’t confined to masks.
In Turkey men sat inside clubs all day (if vaccinated), smoking, playing backgammon, sipping tea, then before leaving, doused themselves in sanitizer, put on a mask and walked outside in the 95 degree heat. That makes no scientific sense, but it did to them.
In a very crowded Lima market, entry required having your hands sprayed. Vendors often gave back change after spraying it.
In both Turkey and Ukraine menus were replaced by either chalk boards, or QR codes.
That isn’t just a developing country thing though. These largely symbolic gestures aren’t confined to poorer people in poorer countries. They are about as close to a universal as you will get, and arguably are at the heart of most COVID policies across the globe.
Think about masking while you walk from the door to your seat, then taking off the mask in restaurants. Think about the vast plexiglass constructs that have popped up all over. Think about the elaborate protocols of masks, testing, and rules on where you can and cannot go, who you can and cannot see, in elite colleges.
Their use in limiting hospitalization and fatalities, is questionable. Many of the COVID policies, beyond having a fully vaccinated at-risk population, is questionable when it comes to that. Which ultimately should be the primary goal of COVID policy.
That isn’t to say all of it is wrong, or not understandable.
Bad mask wearing and dousing yourself in sanitizer before going outside might be silly theater that doesn’t necessarily stop the spread of COVID or death, but they do tell us something deeper about a society. Like how much they care about each other, how much they are invested in taking one for the team, and how much they are trying to put the greater good over their own self expression. Even if it doesn’t fully work out.
In the US, and Western Europe, we went a different route. We didn’t come together. We followed the individualistic path, not the collectivism path, and those who could, removed themselves from society, cocooned in a bubble of protection, where they didn’t need a mask. Via zoom, second homes, and workers to deliver them stuff.
Others, mostly the working class and poor, didn’t have the ability to do that. They continued making sure society didn’t fall apart, so that the cocooned could run their laptops, eat good food, and live safety. All while wearing a mask, and all while having to follow many other rules.
Two very different experiences, two very different demands, two very different rates of fatalities, that made it clear we were not in this together, and mask wearing — embraced by the same cocooned people who didn’t have to wear them all the time (a large, highly visable, and influencial group) — could now be cast as theater. Or the masking was unmasked as it were.
COVID didn’t create the divisions in our country but it has certainly highlighted and magnified them. It was like a dye put into the water, letting everyone see exactly what was going on.
When you travel enough, especially to places that are seen as “under developed” you get a glimpse of how unhealthy a nation we are, despite our immense wealth, despite our first world (but two tiered) medical system. We care more about ourselves than our community.
It is a reminder that a healthy nation isn’t just about how much stuff you have, but if you work together as a whole, not as a collection of self-absorbed individuals who fight over everything. Including the symbolic stuff.