It was a Sunday afternoon. By the Canal St Martin, people were drinking beers from a can. Families were wandering around; parents walked next to their children riding plastic scooters. It was March 15, 2020, the warmest day of the year so far. The sun was shining brightly, and it was easy to forget that the night before, the French government had declared stage 3 of the coronavirus pandemic. It seemed like the entire country was out enjoying the sunny day, even as coffee shops and restaurants had closed and on TV, information on sanitary measures was looping. And not one of us was wearing a mask.
A week earlier, coronavirus was already the hot topic on social media. The warnings were rising but the public response in France (and elsewhere) did not match. Italy was screaming and it was like we didn’t hear anything, as we thought, “it will not reach us.” Walking around Paris, I saw only a few masks on the horizon. On the Metro, we were all so close we could give each other a kiss. At the heart of a city with two million inhabitants, a virus can spread like wildfire.
The Dilemma of Personal Choice
Before the confinement order, not enough healthy people would have considered covering their nose and mouth with a face mask. Many could have assured you the same thing: they were not ill, they did not have any symptoms, so they need not wear one. Or: the virus will not reach them, so why would they bother protecting their face?
In the air, there was a sense of suspicion toward surgical mask wearers because they were perceived as spreaders of COVID-19. The degrading status of the ill person was not what we wanted to embody — none of us wanted to be perceived as a threat to the rest of the population. This threat was ringing with the pandemic growth of a disease caused by social contact and a lack of precautions and hygiene. As a sign of illness, not prevention, the wearer was marked as “uncivil,” responsible for their “risky” behavior that caused them to catch the virus. Of course, this logic did not consider that with a mask, people were doing their part to avoid spreading or catching the virus.
No one wanted to believe that we could all be ill without noticing it, and therefore promote the propagation. Judgement in French culture is omnipresent, so the fearful and the careless coexist. We all moved forward dealing with approving or disapproving looks, and the same query in mind: should I wear a mask?
Information and Contradictions
As I kept on my path along the water, information was running in my head from all different sources. I leaned against a fence — who should we trust within this unstable chain of information? I took a step back and looked around, seeing evidence that everyone wants the right to make up their own mind.
While it is medically verified that masks are a key way to prevent the virus from spreading, some have insisted that this advice is pure nonsense invented by foreign media. Standing against wearing a medical face cover has become a rebellious act, allowing for a critique of the power of media and social institutions over the masses. As the virus spreads, the potential asymptomatic “rebel” has argued that masks should be kept for at-risk people and medical staff, in response to the tremendous shortage of medical masks in the world. In this way the anti-masker can align themselves with hero status.
However, the news has highlighted countries — such as Japan — that stemmed the tide of COVID-19 thanks to medical masks. In fact, masks were already a norm there before coronavirus and as such, their use during the pandemic has been more socially accepted than in places like France. They were indeed mainly used against contamination and because it can be considered impolite to cough or sneeze in public. Thus, during the peak of the virus, anyone without a mask was considered to be a threat. Even though governmental responsibility is a consideration in curbing the spread of illness, cultural habits cannot be ignored.
Weeks have passed since this leisurely Sunday; confinement has been extended and masks for all are at the heart of public debate. On April 2, The French National Academy of Medicine advocated the use of any kind of face mask in the name of public health. The French government has started to recognize this recommendation and slowly shift their policy.
Even then, not everyone is on board. While there certainly have been changes in behavior around protective gear, these have been slow and reluctant. Carelessness in applying simple gestures mostly gets the upper hand. As usual in France, only coercive rules are effective. Just as confinement forces people to stay home, only an official mandate will trigger them to wear masks. Even then, not everyone listens and it often seems as if thoughtless behavior can only be countered with a fine — a punishment that has been a topic of discussion in some French cities, such as Nice.
It is sometimes hard to kiss comfort and privileges goodbye in the name of the collective, even when it is a matter of life and death. And most French people have struggled to overcome the mere discomfort of protecting their face. This situation only emphasises the dichotomy between our own thoughts and actions and our civic duty.
The Fashion of Face Masks
Today, surgical masks are a symbol of our collective dystopian experience, a visual marker of our time. As such, they are part of our fashion system. But unlike fashion, there should be even less choice here.
The reluctance of wearing a mask might come from the fact that it is not a beautiful and trendy artifact. In France especially, the stranger’s gaze is embedded in our relationships. Judgement is commonly accepted, even internalised since childhood, and stepping out of the norm often has a negative impact on social relations.
On the other hand, fashion does not always go with comfort, and face masks could know their hour of glory, just like corsets, wigs and high heels. Several fashion brands have actually shown their interest in the question. Fashion designer Tiannah Toyin Lawani is chain-sewing her own designer masks, which she sells and donates. Talking about disapproving looks she got from strangers at the airport, she said: “But imagine if the fabric [of my mask] had matched my ensemble. They would think, ‘That’s fashion!’” Other companies such as Zara and Prada have rallied their factories to produce medical face masks and protective suits, showing the utilitarian side of fashion production.
However, if not donated, those trendy designer masks, worn by influencers, are not always affordable. They are reserved for the elite; in this crisis as in many others, the choice for eccentricity is a privilege. But of course, we also have the option to sew our own mask. Many tutorials have been shared on the internet, from the most simple to the complex and customised. The public hospital of Grenoble published a three-minute tutorial to make a mask out of a kitchen towel. Even though homemade masks do not necessarily prevent virus transmission to the same level as medically certified ones, they do something to stop the spread, breaking the virus chain.
Since most of our choices are led by our quest for individual comfort, dignity and self expression, the question becomes: can an affordable, fashionable and less “medicalized” mask lend to its normalization? There must be a way to allow users to stop the virus and maintain control over their appearance and personal identity. It’s the same way that colorful bandages encourage children to shield their wounds.
Masks as Civic Responsibility
Around six o’clock on March 15, the sun had hidden behind the highest building, and our steps had brought us to our homes for a lonely evening, while the more brazen ones had a last dinner with friends. As we left the sunny day and the Canal behind, chatting about the last regular topics of a half-regular Sunday afternoon, we could not imagine that 48 hours later, all of us would need a permission slip to go outside.
The beginning of spring was also the beginning of another season, as a cloud called coronavirus shaded the blue sky to come, an experience that at first, seemed to deprive us of our personal rights and freedom. But since then, consciousness has evolved. We have admitted and maybe witnessed the danger of coronavirus, and it is today considered to be a public enemy.
In this “strange” period (as we all keep calling it), there are lots of ways to embody our civic responsibility. But I personally hope for — and have noticed already — a collective solidarity to fight the pandemic and significantly reduce the death toll to come. After a long period of social distancing, I hope we will leave our home more aware of our acts in regard to our peers, as we will keep walking by the stream of our potentially drowning world. For now, when I go grocery shopping, I will put away my image and pride, and not leave my makeshift mask in my pocket.
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