In 2020, there were two ways one could save the world: staying inside and wearing a mask. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, these two slogans were pushed on TV, radio, social media, and other public forums by top public health officials. Quickly, both mandates were met with conflict from citizens driven by personal and political motives. Yet, the majority of the world agreed that to stop the deadly virus, we must adjust our behaviors accordingly.
Since the widespread availability of the vaccine against the coronavirus in 2021, the sentiments around masking have lost their heroic quality. Some countries like the Netherlands, dropped their masking mandates very early into the year. Others, like Italy, increased masking requirements for public spaces and transportation. Still masks were a normal part of our daily lives…until they just disappeared.
What did wearing a mask used to signal?
Pre-vaccine and post-vaccine mask-wearing signaled analogous messages. Pre-vaccine mask-wearing was driven by the terror of catching or transmitting the unknown virus. We wore masks to protect ourselves and show we cared about other people’s lives. Wearing a mask post-vaccine signaled compliance with government regulations in a period where the efficacy of a vaccine was uncertain. While there was less terror, we were still humble enough to not risk being without a mask.
On the other hand, not wearing a mask was also a distinct signal. Pre-vaccine anti-maskers advocated for personal freedom at a time when collective action was required. They risked the their lives and the lives of others to continue a sense of normalcy including going schools, restaurants, gyms, and other public spaces without a mask. Post-vaccine masking was less radicalized as more and more people became comfortable with the possibility of catching the virus.
The Disappearance of Masks
In the second half of 2022, masks faded away from public favor. Armed with at least two vaccines and perhaps a recovery from the virus, most people felt wearing a mask was obsolete. Slowly we began to break the social norm in spaces where not wearing a mask was once forbidden. Enough chinks in the social armor pushed the masking norm to quickly fell apart.
On May 11th, 2023, the COVID-19 public health emergency expires in the United States. And after three years after its first announcement, everyone is eager to move past the pandemic. However, in an attempt to reclaim the time stolen by the pandemic, we have also forgotten the key lessons that it provided.
Getting Sick in 2023
In the same week, the COVID-19 emergency expired, and I got sick. During my travels in Turkey, I caught something from friends and strangers who were sick around me. Many people were coughing and sneezing into the air, in their hands, and without a mask. Hand sanitizers and other protective gear were not used nor publicly available. Admittedly, it took me several days to remember what to do if I fell ill. The day I had to travel back to Italy, I went to the store to buy a mask. I quickly found there were no FFP2 masks but only boxes of surgical masks.
So I got a box and quickly discovered the mood around mask-wearers has significantly shifted.
What does wearing a mask in 2023 signal?
Wearing a mask in 2023 will surely get you a fair share of stares. Since masking is not the norm anymore, covering your mouth and nose, two central features of face recognition, will draw attention. Once attention is drawn, the presence of a mask
signals – triggers three years’ worth of trauma.
Those who know you will ask why you would choose to fashion such an item that the government no longer mandates. The simple answer of “I’m sick” will make them ponder for a moment and eventually accept. Those who are strangers will stare with confusion at this ancient relic from 6 months ago. Instead of the heroic protector of 2020, you are a deviant. In both cases, the wearing of a mask is inconceivable, which is disturbing.
Don’t Forget To Remember
Of the many idiosyncratic lessons the pandemic has taught us, the universal lesson should be health hygiene. When we are sick, whether it’s the seasonal flu or another COVID mutation, our instinct should be to stay inside, wash our hands, and wear a mask. Yet, I have seen many sick folks openly coughing, sneezing, and touching others without protective gear. While our governments are easing their regulations, we should be taking more care in our personal lives, not less.
COVID-19 was a collectively traumatizing event. Humans are wired to forget trauma. But, this pandemic amnesia can be our downfall in protecting ourselves and others from another epidemic. Even though it hasn’t been a year since they lost their mandatory status, the wearing of masks has become a strange phenomena to us. But, if we want to prevent the next pandemic, we need to get reacquainted ASAP!