No. 109
Article by:
Wen Hsiao

In the time of Coronavirus, two archetypes have emerged:  non-believers when it comes to wearing masks, or firm believers like me — who are not only avoiding physical contact but absolutely all eye contact (oh, to walk on the streets again without being treated like patient zero). 

Growing up in Asia, wearing masks is nothing new. It is common courtesy to cover up your nose and mouth, especially if you are in the hospitality sector. When you’re dealing with strangers all day, wearing a mask is just a smart way of protecting yourself. Regardless of your environment, masks are a great way of protecting yourself from dust, pollen, and germs in your day to day life. In some cultures, it is also seen as a way of putting up a ‘social firewall’, in which you can distance yourself from unwanted social interactions (*heart eyes*).It’s the same logic for people who put on earphones to make themselves look occupied and unapproachable. 

Needless to say, masks have existed long before today’s people; in fact, they’ve appeared in different forms and served various functions. The earliest masks found were dated to be from 7000 BC, and were used for rituals and ceremonies, or even seen as a way to communicate with gods and deities. Many of them were complex, made with wood, leather, feathers, and bones, some demonstrating high levels of craftsmanship as they were used for worship. Masks that were more durable offered people protection during hunting, combat, and war. 

Memorably, images of plague doctors feature a beak-shaped mask to protect them in the times of the bubonic plague. Plague doctors were shielded from head to toe, and even given a baton for self-defense, in order to fend off victims of the disease. The beak-shaped masks were half a foot in length (I had to google this, but a foot is roughly 30 centimeters), filled with herbs, had glass openings in the eyes, and had two small holes by the nostrils for the doctors to breathe. 

Besides practical purposes, masks also found their footing in theatre. The most archetypal representation of masks has to be the comedy and tragedy masks pairing. Often seen as a symbol of theatre and drama, the masks represent the two most common varieties of theatre performance. Masks have been used in theatre to convey different characters, emotions, and motifs. 

Unfortunately, masks have also become a fashion commodity today, with brands capitalizing off a global pandemic, selling masks beyond their actual value for a quick buck. 

Whether it is for ritual, entertainment, or protection, in the time of Coronavirus, wearing a mask is a social responsibility. You are not only protecting yourself, but more importantly, you are also protecting others. No one loves wearing a mask on a hot summer day: feeling the humidity steam up underneath the mask, fogging up your glasses anytime you speak more than two words, figuring out if you’ve sweated off your makeup.

But I am a firm believer in masks, especially after seeing how countries like China, Japan, and Taiwan deemed masks mandatory for everyone and were able to effectively contain and combat the spread of the virus. Taking Taiwan as an example, not only were heightened precautions taken about the virus, people took collective measures and practiced mask-wearing courtesies and self-aware social distancing.

In the midst of a pandemic, many governments put out statements declaring masks as ineffective towards protecting ourselves from the Coronavirus, urging us to leave the resources for health professionals. While I do agree that resources should be prioritized for people in the medical sector and that, if it is anything like how people hoarded toilet paper, declaring them as a necessity would have compromised communities vulnerable, misinforming citizens also deeply compromised effective containment of the virus. In came down to, horribly, a business decision rather than a scientific, social, or ethical one. 

Picture of a glove and a face mask

Photo courtesy of Refinery29

In response to the new rule that mandates everyone  wear masks on public transport, there has been a shortage of masks countrywide. I have seen people in my own community take action to help out people in need. A few weeks ago, I met Margot de Jong through Twitter. The 18-year-old fashion student took what she had learned in school to give back to the community. At first, it was just a passion project to make masks for her family and friends, but it turned into something bigger. Her original Tweet gained tractions quickly, garnering over 15,000 views at the time of writing. 

I talked to Margot about how the project came to be and her intentions with making and distributing the masks worldwide:

“I made the masks from unused fabrics I had laying around from school projects. The masks themselves do not have filters in them, as the Netherlands is really short on medical supplies, to the point where people in the medical sector did not have enough. I did not want to waste that on personal use, so I added my own little twist to it and left the sides of the masks open. If people want to add a filter, they [can]. The medical sector is out there risking their lives every single day without a sustainable source of proper protective gear. That’s why I decided to start giving €3 for every mask I sold.” 

The masks themselves are priced at €8 each. Margot offers 27 different fabrics for people to pick from, and they’re updated routinely on her Instagram. People responded instantly and before she knew it, she had gotten 20 orders in the first 3 days. As a beginner to sewing machines, she spends 45 minutes making each mask.

“I wanted to share my project on Twitter, and it led to my masks being bought not in the Netherlands but also in the United States, Spain, France, Norway, and more. Quickly enough, I started getting short on fabrics but I didn’t want to buy new fabrics to contribute to textile waste. I decided to post on Facebook about my project and asked people in my community for leftover fabrics. Thankfully, I got a lot of sweet comments, and within 24 hours I had 6 full bags of spare fabrics from people in my town. In the meanwhile, orders kept coming in, even from people I didn’t know and countries I’ve never been to.”

Picture of face masks

Masks I bought from Margot in support of the medical sector

You can support Margot de Jong and the Dutch medical sector by purchasing a mask on Instagram or Twitter.

Even if you’re a non-believer of masks, it’s time to believe. This is much larger than you, and in truth, it is not about you or your small comforts anymore. If we want to collectively survive this pandemic, it is crucial for us to look out for each other, with our noses and mouths covered.