Who are we, people who leave our homes with naked faces but who, before we interact with others, cover up with masks? Are we hiding our personalities behind those masks? Are we secretly glad to conceal our identities from strangers? From friends? Does the pandemic provide us with an opportunity to hide in public, an opportunity we’ve long wanted to take but never dared? Or are we hiding our infections from the world, hoping our contagions will not be revealed to the people around us who are similarly protecting themselves from recognition and judgment?
Will we wear masks long after the danger has passed? Will a new industry emerge from this period of fear, an industry dedicated to concealment and personal intrigue? So many questions bubble to the surface of our minds, yet no one has answers because no one can foretell the future.
As I contemplate these questions, I wonder whether some similar calamity gave rise to the neck tie. Were men told, many years ago, that they needed to wrap their necks in fabric to avoid exposure to danger of some kind? But when the danger passed, the practice and custom remained, condemning men to the discomfort associated with nearly choking from dawn to dusk. I wonder whether masks will follow the same path, becoming a required piece of clothing that must be worn in public? I can imagine, centuries hence, anthropologists explaining that twenty-first century humans took up the custom of wearing masks as a symbol of concern for the health of their fellow citizens. People who refused to wear masks, the anthropologists will say, were judged unclean and unsafe and to be avoided at all costs. Naked faces, they will say, were the twenty-first century equivalent of lepers who were earlier confined in quarantine to leper colonies.
Quarantine. That word will forevermore be associated with masks. There will be artwork depicting people sitting outdoors in chairs spaced ten or more feet distant from other chairs. The people seated in the chairs will be sipping drinks, generically called “quarantinis,” as they raise, and then lower, their masks to give their mouths access to their drinks. I wish I were a talented artist; if I were, I could paint those scenes of pods of distant drinkers, shouting comments so they could be heard over the roar of the wind.
Masks hide more than our noses and mouths. They hide faces frozen in fear. They hide paralysis rendered by not knowing what to think, what to believe, what to do. If we could find masks that would hide our thoughts and fears from us, we would wear them. We would don helmets and breast plates if those medieval accouterments would silence the mental screams that keep us constantly on edge, worrying that we might somehow have failed to keep the virus out of our lives.
So many lives have been lost, as of April 24, 2020, to COVID-19. The number of deaths to date—52,400—is roughly equivalent to the population of any one of the following cities:
- Normal, Illinois
- Battle Creek, Michigan
- Manhattan, Kansas
- Pensacola, Florida
- Hoffman Estates, Illinois
- Novato, California
- Revere, Massachusetts
- Saginaw, Michigan
- Euless, Texas
Imagine. If, instead of the novel coronavirus, a bomb vaporized the population of any one of those cities. That is what we’re trying to hide with our masks. And it won’t be long before the deaths will be equal to the population of White Plains, New York or Dubuque, Iowa or Reston, Virginia. And the numbers will keep climbing.
Masks are not funny, but we have to laugh or we’ll cry ourselves to sleep. We have to laugh at the absurdity of the President of the United States suggesting injections of disinfectants and light as a treatment for the coronavirus. We have to imagine him, a huge smile on his face, drinking from a plastic jug of Clorox bleach. Even dark humor is better than none at all. We cannot hide the darkness behind a mask.
People who have lost family and friends to the virus will not laugh. But the rest of us have to try, even as we console those who are grieving.