Covering our faces – the new normal?

Laura and Sally shopping together - with masks on.
Laura and Sally shopping together - with masks on.

Last week, with the shops newly opened, and looking for an outing, I hit Oxford Street with my daughter. With no expectations of being able to get into the packed stores and a reluctance to queue for more than half an hour for anything, we set off with an open mind, and the new essentials; hand sanitiser, plastic gloves and of course face masks, to investigate.

Hand sewn, fashioned from an old t-shirt, patterned or plain, or clinical pre-made, masks are the New Normal.  With the requirement now to wear them on public transport and mixed messages from shops (when do and don’t you need them?) we were ready for anything.  Debenhams, the only major store open on Oxford street before 11am turned out to be deserted other than dozens of helpful, vizored staff directing us to giant hand sanitizer dispensers and to voluminous quantities of unsold merchandise.

We definitely do need to wear masks.  TV personality Dr Ellie Cannon, whose email signature says “Now wash your hands”, called wearing a mask the greatest act of kindness we can do for other people.  After all, she pointed out at Mitzvah Day’s Every Mitzvah Matters event with Hugh Dennis last week, masks protect other people, not the wearer. But, whatever fabric or design, masks are hot, stuffy and make your glasses steam up and as I wondered round the west end store, marvelling at the range of real things to buy (rather than images on line) my tendency was to drop my home-made version under my chin whenever I could.

The resistance to wearing masks goes way beyond the physical or practical.  For people with hearing disabilities, for example, not being able to see the face of a speaker adds to exclusion from conversations and interaction, already a challenge, online.

Barriers are part of our new online life.  Whist Zoom, Teams, Meet, Skype etc are transformative in many ways, I wonder at the people who choose to turn their cameras off.  By doing so they are looking directly into my face and even my living room but keeping their own closed off with excuses about not looking their best, or similar.  It does not make for open, trusting conversations

A whole new industry has set up helping us to dress our Zoom screens to project the personality we want the world to see…. so what is someone who chooses not to be seen projecting about themselves?

And taking this one step further, we have long been taught to be suspicious of people who cover their faces – the dark dangerous balaclava, the sexually mischievous masked ball, the shadowy silhouette, are all unsettling and often prevent open honest interaction.

The much-publicised criticism by the Prime Minister of women in burkas is another example of how fear is generated around people whose faces are covered.  In this case, overlaid onto the face covering are negative existing stereotypes about Muslims and indeed women; tapping into prejudice is always easy.

Right now, prejudice against the Other is likely to rise exponentially.  We have already seen the cracks in society opening up with people looking to apportion blame for the pandemic.  Conspiracy theories are gathering momentum with Asian women, people from China and inevitably, immigrants targeted as spreaders.  As a recent CST report states, it was clear that “antisemitism wouldn’t be far behind, and antisemites, conspiracy theorists and extremists of different hues have all added their antisemitic poison to this crisis.”

None of us want to wear face masks but if we are to rid ourselves of Covid19 it seems that we must.  The challenge is how to ensure that our current predicament of needing to interact only on line, to socially distance and to cover our faces does not further fuel suspicions and prejudice.

We need, where-ever we can, to remove the barriers, turn on those cameras, light up our faces, switch to visors where possible and to interact, when it is both legal and safe with real people.  Making a face mask together may be fun, but it most definitely is far from funny.

About the Author
Laura Marks is a serial social entrepreneur who likes to focus on the common good. She founded Mitzvah Day, an international and interfaith day of social action, co-founded Nisa-Nashim, a Jewish/Muslim women’s network, and co-chairs the Alliance of Jewish Women. She chairs the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and all her work aims to make the world better and safer starting with the grass roots. Laura’s OBE was awarded for interfaith relations and in 2019 she was honoured by the Archbishop of Canterbury through his interfaith Hubert Walters Award. Laura’s family think she has a view on everything – and she does indeed love to broadcast (a regular on Radio 2 Pause for Thought) and write for the Jewish News.
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