WHEN the move to ban corporal punishment in private schools was being debated in the nineties, the discussion seemed to be all about whether physical violence against children was an ‘effective’ sanction.
‘So what if it’s effective?’ I remember shouting at the TV. ‘It’s still wrong!’
Twenty years later, it’s unthinkable that my colleagues in schools would support reintroducing the practice of whacking unco-operative kids with a cane. I wonder if we might look back on the Covid era and feel something similar about masks. Are masks any use at all in preventing the spread of the virus? But as with the corporal punishment question, their effectiveness should be only part of the discussion.
Politics is a game of balancing competing virtues, but during the pandemic we’ve sacrificed all our virtues at the altar of one: that of safety. We might gain a degree of safety when we mask up (though I’m doubtful how much), but let’s also consider what we stand to lose. Since so-called Freedom Day, only one in 20 adults has ditched the mask. Here are six reasons why that figure should be higher.
- Most adults are fully vaccinated
The figure stood at 73 per cent on August 3. The remainder appear reluctant. If it’s not safe to unmask now, when will it be?
- Masks are hideous
Some badges of virtue, such as the poppy to mark Remembrance Day, or those cute pink ribbons that promote breast cancer charities, have no aesthetic cost and possibly some gain. Masks are ugly. Not everyone agrees. Matthew Parris, for example, claims to find an erotic appeal in the mask and its resemblance to the codpiece. Well, good for Matthew. But masks don’t do it for me. Almost all of us look better without a one. The blue surgical masks in particular are redolent not of the boudoir, but of the casualty unit and the morgue.
- The risk of dependency
When masks were declared no longer compulsory in schools, some of the children I taught still chose to wear them. The anxious ones will have been frightened of Covid; for the disruptive, masks enable you to mutter over the teacher’s instructions without being detected. More concerning was the girl who told me she couldn’t bring herself to unmask because she’d feel self-conscious if her peers could see her face. Did anyone consider, when we muzzled our children for months to protect the elderly, that the policy might have a lasting psychological impact on teenage girls in particular, notoriously prone as they are to body-image issues? No, we were only bothered about the effectiveness.
- Masks could be damaging your health
According to the BMJ, studies show the oxygen deficiency caused by mask wearing can lead to increased heart rate, nausea, dizziness and headaches. You probably knew that already, but the BMJ also says face masking can increase stress hormones, leading to ‘a negative impact on immune resilience in the long term’. As with the devotion of the NHS to Covid at the expense of other diseases, it seems the masking policy prioritised short-term political gain over long-term health outcomes.
- Masks inhibit social interaction
As a species we evolved to use our facial expressions and to read the expressions of others, partly to enhance verbal communication. I want to understand what the waitress or the GP is saying without having to ask for several repetitions. Also, facial communication is vital at times of emotional crisis, and yet a friend of mine who counsels troubled young adults tells me some of her colleagues are performing their face-to-face sessions with only half of their faces on display. Then there are the random encounters that brighten an ordinary day. I’ve missed being able to smile at strangers and see them smile back. At a time when loneliness has become an epidemic, encounters with strangers will be the only human interaction many of us experience all day. Pre-pandemic, such moments were already reduced by the shifting of services online, the proliferation of self-service checkouts, the closure of post offices, libraries, pubs and much more. Now those precious encounters with friendly strangers are dulled and muted by an ugly physical barrier.
- . They promote a culture of paranoia
Far from being a mere practical inconvenience, masks are a powerful symbol. The mask says: ‘I am dangerous and so are you. We must be afraid not only of disease but of each other.’ Obscuring facial features obliterates our individuality. When you don the mask, you lose part of your personhood and become one of the crowd – a crowd united in mutual fear and suspicion. We might be experiencing a brief moment of opportunity. There are signs that masks could become mandatory again. Sadiq Khan is lobbying the government to make it illegal once more to be unmasked on the London Underground, and a winter surge of the virus could embolden the mask hawks. Now, while we don’t legally have to comply, let’s stop doing so. Only if more of us push back will the cultural tide begin to turn, and when it does, you can bet that this most public-fearing of governments will follow. This past 18 months has left many of us feeling helpless, but by ditching the mask you are doing your bit to speed our return to a life of joy and freedom.