The surgical face mask has become a symbol of our times.
If there is a symbol of the current confusion and fear, the misinformation and anxiety, generated by the spread of the new coronavirus, it is the surgical face mask. When history looks back on the pandemic of 2020, those white or baby blue rectangles that hide the mouth and nose, turning everyone into a muzzled pelican, will be what we see.
The masks began appearing almost immediately after the infection was identified, first in Asia, where masks were already common, and then in Europe. These days they are everywhere. (And nowhere — there is a serious face mask shortage).
Now photographs of people in masks illustrate almost every news article about the virus, on front pages and social media alike. After all, the contagion itself is intangible: a microscopic organism resting on hard surfaces, transmitted through the air in water droplets from infected individuals. It can’t be seen.
Even more than bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, the mask has become the virus’s avatar; shorthand for our looming dread, desire to hide, inability to protect ourselves, and desire to do something — anything — to appear to take action.
In this it is simply the latest iteration of an object (an accessory?) that has occupied an outsize role in various cultures and our unspoken forms of communication since it was created in the mid-1890s. Face masks — the mouth-and-nose-covering kind, as opposed to the eye-covering kind or the Michael Myers kind, both of which have their own history and set of associations — have long been a fraught symbol.
They have represented safety and protection from disease and pollution; solidarity; protest; racism; a fashion trend; and now, pandemic. They have been, said Christos Lynteris, a medical anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, a sign of “something that hides but also communicates.” It is, he said, “an interesting dialectic, and one very dependent on context.”