Marching across the world as the advance guard of the Covid-19 pandemic, the face mask should be left to the professionals, argues Edwin Heathcote.
If there is a must have accessory for 2020 it is, surely, the surgical mask., This utilitarian, specialised, slightly sinister-looking product has, thanks to the spread of Covid-19, become almost ubiquitous. From China to Venice along the old Silk Road, it is now penetrating the rest of the world. It is said that it can be useful in preventing those already infected from spreading the virus further but that it is useless as a defence. And yet almost everyone wearing one is attempting to protect themselves rather than others.
So it is, in fact, very much a fashion accessory, a totem worn to reassure the wearer that at least they are doing something. Its parallel is the pomander worn by the wealthy during the periodic plagues of the past. Proof that it has entered the realms of trends is that year’s Paris Fashion Week saw a rash of branded facemasks replete with logos, while Marine Serre’s collection (designed before the outbreak) reflected the mood with a bunch of coordinated mask and outfit combos. The fashion journalists in the front rows were themselves clad in white face masks, distracting from the models.
In reality, the surgical mask is a sign of fear and powerlessness. Although we are only just now approaching peak mask ‘season', it is not a new phenomenon. The original boy in the bubble, Michael Jackson, was wearing facemasks two decades ago — possibly due to germophobia, but more likely due to ongoing bizarre plastic surgery. A chicer version of the facemask, usually in black, recently became a K-Pop phenomenon and pan-Asian fashion accessory. And travellers to much of East Asia will have noticed the increasing ubiquity of masks on the streets over the last few years in the wake of other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS. In the rest of the world they have gone mostly noticed. Until, that is, now.
This new trend gives an entirely new meaning to the expression ‘going viral’. Unlike other masks, this one does not disguise (the Chinese security services have already found a way to allow facial recognition to continue working) but it does distance. It is muzzle as well as a mask. Perhaps what is most unsettling is that it is part of the armoury of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses in operating theatres, where the patient would not see them. By the time doctors with masks reach you, you should already be knocked out. If you are not, you are about to be operated on, which is surely one of our worst collective nightmares (and consequently a recurring trope in horror films).
That everyone has been hoarding masks has meant the very people who actually need them often struggle to get hold of them. It is an absurd consequence of a futile gesture. If anyone has the disease, they should be self-isolating. If they do not, they should not be wearing a mask. Leave them for the professionals.