Masks are the talk of the town lately, are they not? To wear them or not to wear them. Cotton or synthetic. Single layer or multilayer. Inserts or not. Mainstream or rebellious. Republican or Democrat. Individualistic or conformist. Surgical or fashionable. How did a little piece of fabric with ear loops rise to the level of cultural totem for the various groups that see it as medical savior or condemn it as heresy in 2020?
According to Wikipedia, a mask is an object normally worn on the face that may be used for protection, disguise, performance or entertainment. Masks have been used for various purposes since antiquity. The word “mask” appeared in English in the 1530s, from the middle French masque “covering to hide or guard the face”. How have masks been used throughout history? Well, there are funeral masks, life masks, death masks, ceremonial masks, performance masks, ritual masks, religious masks, healing masks, and political masks. Masks may be used in festivals, carnivals, burials, plays, and stories.
Now, all of these are similar, but they differ a bit from the functional masks that have as their purpose the protection of the wearer. We are a bit more familiar with these in the year 2020. There are oxygen masks, surgical masks (including the N95 that has been in the news off and on since March of this year), face shields, and even pocket masks that can be used by a good Samaritan who happens upon someone who needs CPR. Protective masks filter the outside air in some fashion to make it safe for the breather. Other functional masks might include the kind worn by robbers and thieves to keep their identity safe from their victims or security cameras that might capture them as they go about their dastardly deeds. Plague doctors in Europe wore beaked masks that contained herbs in the beak to attempt to ward off the Black Death.
Do you get the point here? Masks have been around for literally thousands of years and have served every purpose from identifying the wearer to hiding his identity to celebrating his life to commemorating his death to punishing him to keeping him healthy. According to Stephen E. Nash writing in Sapiens Anthropology Magazine, the earliest well documented masks came from the arid Judean Desert in the Middle East about 9000 years ago. They may not have been the earliest ones, but they were certainly among the earliest preserved ones. Masks have been important cultural phenomena for thousands of years.
How about the medical aspect of mask wearing, which confronts us now in 2020? A bit of history is informative here as well. A July 27, 2020 piece in The Conversation said that during the 1918 flu pandemic, cities around the world passed mandatory masking orders. In the United States, the American public at that time embraced mask wearing as “an emblem of public spiritedness and discipline”. Mask wearing was widely unpopular in Canada during that time, but was embraced by the public in Japan. To the Japanese, mask wearing symbolized “modernity”. The Japanese continued to wear masks to protect themselves from the flu, and later against SARS and avian influenza. In a country that takes etiquette very seriously, wearing masks has become a form of politeness. Controversies over mask wearing continue in the United States and other countries as well as the coronavirus pandemic rages on. To some, masks represent control, are uncomfortable, unnecessary, and possibly even harmful to their own health. To others, seeing people wearing masks is a tangible reminder that the pandemic is real, and is frightening to them. Some have an “optimism bias” and believe that the coronavirus will not affect them.
The latest advice from the CDC and other groups maintains that the Three W’s (watch your distance, wash your hands and wear a mask when not able to social distance) are still the best way that individuals can protect themselves and others from infection with coronavirus. Masks have been around for millennia, and they still appear to be one of the easiest and best ways to protect ourselves as we navigate this pandemic. Educate yourself, practice good social hygiene and stay safe out there.