In the face of mass(k) hysteria: Our new abnormal IV

Published July 11, 2020, 10:32 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng


Always thankful for small mercies, I’m grateful that by and large, Filipinos have embraced the wearing of face masks. Social distancing may at times be a different matter, but you can’t fault the malls and eating establishments for constantly reminding us about keeping a respectable and safe distance when we enter their premises. And we can be extra grateful that wearing of masks has not become a politicized decision, as it has in the USA. There, unbelievably (and I know the whole world watches with incredulity), the non-wearing of masks and defying what the medical and scientific experts say, has become a pro-Trump, MAGA statement. All this happening while the USA accounts for 20% of the world’s COVID-related cases and deaths.

Goldman Sachs utilized metrics to show that the use of face masks can help prevent lockdowns, and signify savings of up to 5% of GDP; but the wearing has become so politicized, that wearing one is considered an anti-Trump action, tagging you as a liberal, a Democrat, or un-American. It’s definitely a crazy world; and without a doubt, in these COVID times, America is leading the world in craziness. How else can we explain Alabama, and kids there holding a coronavirus party; where there are COVID-positive partygoers, and the first healthy partygoer who can subsequently produce a doctor’s certificate stating he or she is now positive, takes home the money pot collected during the party. That’s so disturbing and bizarre — an example of real life being much stranger than anything we could dream up in fiction.

On the lighter side, let’s take a look at where this newfound, and necessary, obsession with face masks has been taking us:

I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your… Mask? – Don’t you hate it when someone waves at you from a distance away, and because he or she is wearing a mask, you don’t recognize who they are; but out of politeness, wave right back? Do you approach them, hoping you will recognize them as you get closer? Or do you just walk on, forever uncomfortable with the thought that you have no idea who was being friendly? Plus, how sure were they as to who you are? Well, in Indonesia, they’ve been taking photos of your face, then laser-printing the bottom half image onto your plain face mask. Your mouth may no longer be moving when you talk behind the mask, but people will recognize who you are, and vice-versa.

And the Winner Is Miss-Understanding – If you’re taking issue with the fact that thanks to the mask, your words sound muffled, garbled, you’re often misunderstood; then bow to Japan. Donut Robotics, a start-up, has developed a “smart mask.” The mask has Bluetooth connectivity to your smartphone, with the transmitter tucked into the part of the mask that covers your cheeks. You say something from within your mask, and it can be repeated by your phone. It can even translate to various languages, just like how sales ladies in Japanese department stores attend to foreign visitors. This will really come in handy; as what I often witness is the scenario mentioned above of not being understood, and then the speaker will take off his or her mask to repeat what they just said! Duh!

Eyes Without a Face – And all around the world, the incessant demand for face masks, and the limited stocks of those of medical grade, has lead to imaginative improvisation, and even inspired sustainability. In the Amazon, they’ve used banana leaves; while you’ll find news photos of Kenyans wearing vegetables – such as a cabbage leaf or fronds. Packaging material, plastic bottles, bras (Yes dear, just one side of the bra, so don’t let your imagination run wild), diapers, garbage bags; they’ve all been repurposed and recycled into face masks – and this has happened here in the Philippines as well. If this pandemic is truly over before the year ends, watch how so many of these makeshift masks will reappear come Halloween-time. 

Pista ng MassKara 2020 – On the other hand, if coronavirus is still a visitor in our country come October, does that make the Bacolod MassKara festival superfluous? Or will Bacolod go on with a special edition Doble MassKara festival – with people celebrating by donning a mask that’s underneath another mask? Makes one speculate on what will happen with the Carnevale di Venezia in January of 2021 – famous for their handheld masks covering the upper half of  the face. Will you now have those same exquisite, even bejeweled, Venetian masks coupled with a N95? Seems like an absurd notion, but you never know what can happen in the name of “the show must go on.” 

Dedicated Follower of Fashion – Here in the Philippines, we’ve gone the further step of turning our face masks into fashion statements. And in the drive to be of relevance during the pandemic, sensitive to the times, and contribute to the effort of reducing the virus’ spread, several of our fashion designers have taken to creating their own line of masks (and PPE’s). Vania Romoff has been offering face masks made of silk, Rhett Eala has masks with designs inspired by Nature, and Mark Bumgarner’s The Armor Project uses repurposed fabric for his masks, giving them the added stamp of sustainability. KAAYO has hand-beaded masks of Tboli patterns, celebrating modern Mindanao. And Wear.Annika offers wraps that work as masks, hair-ties, and are made of upcycled fabric. Salay Handmade Paper Industries have these interesting abaca masks that they’ve christened 7XB Filtration Masks – reusable as they’re washable with water and soap, they also offer better filtration, which normal cloth masks that aren’t medical grade don’t offer.

Whether we love them or not, these face masks and shields have become part of our New Reality. And I loved how people were saying we all have to  now learn to have smiling, twinkling eyes; as no one can see us smiling behind the mask. A joke said and laughed at, a gesture appreciated, gratitude or happiness – they’re now hard to discern behind the facade of the mask. Hiding our feelings, on the other hand, is a walk in the park with the existence of these masks. We can inwardly grimace at the other person’s joke, feel blasé about what the other person is extolling; and the need for an excellent poker face has been substantially diminished.

Charles Dickens, in his Tale of Two Cities, came up with one of the most memorable of opening paragraphs. Now, I’m certainly not going to claim these are “the best of times;” but the innate contradictions of the following lines do set a tone for what we’re now undergoing. With the Filipino’s penchant for eternal optimism, even if guarded, this has been, “the age of wisdom… the age of foolishness, the epoch of belief… the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” Interesting times for us all, even if we’re all pining for the same-same of the old-old pre-COVID days.