Talking figuratively?

I know you’re thinking of the likes of Oscar Wilde, who said, give the man “a mask and he’ll tell the truth”; but no. But we’ll come to the mask as a metaphor a little later. This is, literally, about living in the post-Covid world wearing the face cover to protect oneself while maintaining social distancing. Most societies have by now accepted the face-mask as a given and people are prepared to live with it as well, even if there is a preventive vaccine immediately available. Businesses are seeing opportunities for mask-making, with the global market likely to cross $3.5 billion by 2027, according to an analysis by market research firm Fortune Global Research.

So, masks are here to stay...

Indeed, they are. The World Health Organization says the world needs about 90 million medical masks as coronavirus infections surge across the globe, making the demand for protective medical gear, for health professionals as well as the public at large. 3M, one of the biggest manufacturers of N95 masks (the company developed the first N95 masks in the 1970s), ships more than 30 million N95 masks a month; still, it’s not able to meet the demand, which is so huge that market watchers see a sustainable business in it, especially with the face-mask becoming the most important and powerful socio-cultural icon of our times.

Such a new, though disturbing, experience!

Well, humanity has a long history of wearing face-masks. If you have seen those archival drawings about the bubonic plague, you’d have noticed the doctors wearing those scary-looking beak-like face covers. In fact, in comparison with Covid-19 — which has so far claimed more than 8,20,000 lives with over 23 million infections — the plague, which claimed 100-200 million lives, looks huge in size and spread. Yet, it didn’t introduce anything like the face-mask, even though like all pandemics in history, it forced societies to have a rethink in the way they lived, worked and communicated.

Are things different today?

Courtesy of the globalisation of culture, trade and ideas, the Covid-19 pandemic has spread faster across the globe than most other pandemics in history, leaving a deeper imprint. This also means, as social scientists and historians have already pointed out, the symbols it creates and the habits it forces upon the people would stay for a longer period than those that most other pandemics triggered.


Take the humble face-mask, the use of which was not common even in surgery and healthcare till 1910. In China, during the 1910-11 Manchurian epidemic, people wore protective face gear that had close resemblance to today’s face masks. It was in 1897 that German ‘hygienist’ Carl Friedrich Flügge released his studies on infections through droplets. His case in point was tuberculosis. It was mainly during this time that the idea of people getting infected through the respiratory system got prominence in medicine and doctors started advising people to keep a distance to avoid infections. Evidently, ideas such as mouth bandages and nose covers found prominence in this discourse.


Still, it wasn’t easy getting people, even surgeons, to wear masks. It was only in the 1940s that “washable and sterilisable” masks found their way to surgery rooms, mainly in Germany and the US. Still, masks were mostly confined to surgery rooms and remained an occasional social phenomenon. But during World War-II, masks became popular and even entered the mainstream social narrative thanks to factors such as industrialisation and growth in military sciences and the scientific knowledge that masks could be effective against infections and allergies through pollens (especially from plants such as the Japanese cedar or sugi).

So, the facemask is a fairly recent introduction to our lives, right?

Yes, if you strike out the masks used in art and artforms. Even though several East-Asian societies have been using face masks as a social habit for sometime now, the realities introduced by Covid-19 necessitate a different approach towards masks. That’s why social scientists and medical researchers, are now fuming their brains over the potential impacts the use of face masks can use in society, if Covid-19 continues to to be here, causing perennial changes.

For instance, humans e not used to communicating with a mask on. Communication experts say that it will take some time for people to get used to the idea of talking to each other while wearing masks, which make the very act of speaking a tad weird and opaque. Lip movements play a great role in human communication and face shields will now mask those precious gestures, causing a great deal of confusion. And that’s just one aspect; there’s plenty more we haven’t figured out yet.

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