I think back to the beginning of quarantine, a confusing concoction of “what next” and “what now,” mixed with notions of a necessary new normal. The process of isolation seemed to initiate a form of social compassion I hadn’t yet experienced, with interpersonal interactions seeming to be more genuine — a reflection of a world at a standstill while still very much in motion.
Like most cities, my hometown changed almost instantaneously: white printed papers taped on storefronts that whispered their closures alongside their distant return, theater marquees sending their well wishes, and “ESSENTIAL TRIPS ONLY” starkly placed on bus destination signs. Although disruptive to familiar routine, the transition into isolation was indicative of an obligatory change in American culture, and was met with much resistance as a result.
Protests arose, declaring lockdowns and mask wearing an infringement on personal liberties. The suggested practice of wearing face masks has become a visible representation of the schism in the struggle against a pandemic in American society; a good portion of Americans refuse to wear them, revealing how American individualism risks and ignores the health and safety of its people.
To me, masks signal a change in communal compassion, a brief moment of shared consideration regarding the health of others, urging the transition into a more collective culture, in which the needs of a community are holistically met. However, as the rhetoric behind wearing face masks thrived on confusion, misinformation and anger — beginning with Trump’s refusal to wear a mask in March, followed by a deluded promise of a quick return to normalcy, and now the Center for Disease Control advocating for the widespread use of face masks — the consistency of the discourse that steadfastly advocated for mask-wearing speaks to a culture in need of a community that detaches from individualistic desires.
Amid American individualism lies the prioritization of personal comfort and an overall aversion toward change. Yet, wearing face masks in an everyday setting is nothing new, as it became a normalized practice in collectivist countries such as China, Japan and South Korea after the 2003 SARS pandemic as a way to reiterate the importance of protecting the health of the vulnerable. The value of communal protection is visually apparent through wearing a face mask, showing others that their health is valued and respected.
The rejection of wearing masks in American culture is not new either; during the 1918 pandemic, The Anti-Mask league formed in San Francisco, where at least 2000 people gathered to discuss putting an end to mandatory mask wearing. Early preventative measures against the flu, such as requiring the public to wear masks, centered around a patriotic incentive to protect American troops. As World War I ended, so did public ordinances requiring masks. It is an unfortunate instance of coming full circle, relishing in the American desire to maintain tradition.
Today, boredom, haircuts and manicures were placed at the forefront of white America’s perception of the pandemic, while communities of color — particularly black Americans — remained disproportionately impacted by COVID-19. Three months after the beginning of COVID-19’s presence in the United States, masks have now re-calibrated their significance to highlight another cultural issue, as a response to the violent and systemic racism executed by police.
Protesters and activists have written “I can’t breathe” on their masks, pointing to the fact that the pandemic is not the only public safety crisis at hand. Black Americans are three times more likely to be killed by the police than white Americans, and 99% of police related killings from 2013 to 2019, have not resulted in officers being charged for their crimes. This points to an accountability that is lacking within the American justice system, one that, similar to the medical system, systematically ignores the safety and well-being of black people in America. A protest sign I personally saw said, “If you think a face mask makes it hard to breathe, imagine being black in America.”
Before quarantine, I remember buying a four pack of toilet paper and the last container of Lysol wipes in the store, thinking I was preparing for nothing, and frustrated by a panic that resulted in mass hoarding of everyday necessities. I still thought the focal point of 2020 would be the election. I thought I would be back to work in two weeks and in the bars with my friends by summer; but here I am in June, with each decision I make deeply conscious of the possible communal consequences.
Although places are starting to reopen, I am not going. However, I will admit that when this all started, I, too thought masks were trivial, though that was something that stemmed from the prioritization of my own safety. All I was hearing about masks centered around their inability to be entirely effective against the spread of the COVID-19, but now I don’t leave the house without one. In fact, I wore two when I attended a rally against police brutality.
Yes, wearing a cloth face mask in the middle of summer may not feel comfortable or familiar, but as I assess the lessons I’ve learned throughout this pandemic, the sense of normalcy that is shrouded in individualism perpetuates toxic social systems.
The fight against COVID-19 has proved itself to be a collective process that requires a balance of adjusting personal habits and a willingness to care beyond self-interest. It is important to differentiate the way in which conceptualizing a “new normal”’ versus the “returning” to a familiar normal, a narrative encouraged by Trump, reiterates the necessity to change American social systems entirely.
As America grieves, heals and resists against systemic occurrences of oppression, the routine and “normalcy” of life before the pandemic is now seen as antiquated and abusive. As I confront my own complicity with systemic racism, I find a strange form of significance in the production of homemade cloth masks; they have become a physical symbol of becoming familiar with changing norms. Community is essential in any occurrence of healing, and masks in particular signal a willingness to adapt for the greater good of others.