At the end of 2020, globally the one universal change in behavior is the practice of wearing face masks. Whether pushed by fear of fines or the urge to protect oneself, mask wearing in public has become a part of life. Despite some protests on compulsory mask wearing, the raging COVID pandemic has ensured that a majority of the world population now wears a mask. Whether vaccines will change this is unclear. Wearing a mask is here to stay – at least for a while.
Masks have been a part of human history and culture for centuries. The use of masks in religious rituals and ceremonies is found in all parts of the world. The oldest masks are about 9000 years old, and are on display in the Bible and Holy Land Museum in Paris. Whether used in ritual, entertainment, sport or performance, masks are deeply entrenched in human civilization, and have signified different roles and identities of the wearers. Even in present times, masks are used in dance, in carnival parades and theatre.
The use of masks in public health has more recent origins. In 17th century Europe, covering the nose and mouth was primarily about neutralizing ‘miasma’ (bad smelly air) exemplified by the plague doctors’ perfumed bird masks. As understanding of contagion based on germ theory evolved, medical practitioners began to use masks. In 1897, Johan Mikulicz, surgeon at the University of Breslau, Poland, and in Paris surgeon Paul Berger started to wear a face mask. Gradually, the face mask became a strategy of infection control. The Manchurian plague of 1910-11, followed by the Spanish Influenza in 1918-19 made the face mask a means of protecting medical workers and patients from infectious diseases outside of the operating room.
In the 21st century the outbreak of SARS in 2003 in China, and its spread in South East Asia made masks a common sight on the street. Further, in recent times rising pollution in developing countries also made masks popular in large urban areas. However, the COVID 19 pandemic has made masks a part of life for nearly every human on earth.
For us, who need to wear a mask the options are many. We can make them at home learning from the various videos online. Or we can buy disposable masks, washable ones with pretty designs, with multiple layers, or with built-in air filtration systems.
In the span of some months, the simple face mask has evolved into a fashion statement. Masks can be matched to clothes, material and occasion. Bridal wear these days includes a designer mask; it could also be bejeweled for those who can afford! There are separate masks for men, women and children. Masks are the latest consumer item flying off shelves.
As with any new product, issues emerge. With masks the primary concern is about disposal of used masks. A potential environmental hazard, they could be a source of harmful micro-plastic fibers on land and in waterways that could last for long years. In this scenario, the best option for us is to use washable reusable masks, and if using single use masks then disposing them off with care.
Currently, wearing a mask is being enforced in most parts. So should we wear masks to avoid fines? Or should we wear them to protect ourselves? The answer lies somewhere in between. We should wear masks to protect ourselves, others and participate in the social responsibility towards efforts to bring the transmission of COVID 19 down. Wearing a face mask today is a sign of self interest and responsibility. A really winning combination – let us all wear it.
Published in Hindi in Dainik Bhaskar on 16-12-2020