In search of lost masks

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I understand the person looking at shoes, and the one on their phone. But why are the other two in the store at all? byronv2 via Flickr

On campus and around the city, masked faces are ever rarer

by will spencer, contributor

As I stood in Montreal’s airport in mid-August, I was surrounded by masked people. Everywhere you looked, you would find an individual donning a mask, be it surgical or cloth. By the end of the month, the mandate requiring masks would be lifted, and I would be waltzing into the university for the first time in over two years.

I am a fervent mask wearer; cloth masks, usually. I understand there are benefits to be gained from KN95 masks, however I do not have ready access to one, and I have withstood this pandemic unscathed, despite being a substitute teacher who is required to travel to any and all schools that call.

Two weeks ago, I was told that a superspreading event occurred at a staff meeting, which is why I was called in to substitute. It is situations like this that instill and affirm my continued mask use.

Yet, when I go into the university, I would guess that less than five per cent of students and faculty are donning masks, which is alarming given the proximity we find ourselves in. This is not me proselytizing to you; rather, this is an elucidation upon what I see and what I have experienced. For example, I have had kindergarteners ask me why I was wearing a mask, whereupon I would explain to them that it was to prevent me spreading or contracting COVID. “That’s over – my daddy told me.” I bit my tongue and prompted them back to their colouring sheets.

How is it that something as simple as a mask could be so divisive, so difficult to wear? I heard numerous teachers proclaim that they would retire next year if they had to keep wearing masks. Why? Some cited comfort, others more ambiguous, pernicious thoughts. Jeremy Bentham, the father of Utilitarianism, would invoke us to consider the benefits for all, not merely the individual.

After the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, many Asian countries adopted mask wearing as a preventative measure. We do not see the same adherence without mandates in North America. That may be due to the nature of the societal paradigms: North America tends to be individualistic, supporting individual liberty and choice, whereas Asian cultures tend to be more collectivist, thus more willing to support a movement that benefits the entire populous. These tendencies have been borne out in numerous psychological studies.

However, I understand the desire for normalcy: to see faces as we always have and are evolutionarily programmed to view (patternicity: when you espy faces and shapes in objects such as clouds because that’s how our meat machines work). To hell with the people that demand smiling faces, but I empathize with the want to expose and see faces. They represent a large part of our identity, hence children drawing faces with more detail, the remainder mere lines in the beginning of their artistic journey.

Thus, I merely advise that you pay attention to the number of cases and act accordingly. As we head into winter, with less time outside and a diminutive amount of fresh air, we will find cases rising. And need I mention the latent fear of the inscrutable long COVID, which allegedly affects around one per cent of cases and has a bevy of symptoms that can manifest months after infection and become chronic. This is all to say that I can’t force you to do anything, I’m just elucidating upon my reality.

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