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A woman wears a mask (Image design: Tina Tiller)
A woman wears a mask (Image design: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONSocietyJanuary 31, 2024

Let’s bring back the remarkable gift of wearing a mask

A woman wears a mask (Image design: Tina Tiller)
A woman wears a mask (Image design: Tina Tiller)

We made a mistake in framing masking as a dreary obligation to others, when in reality, to be able to go about your daily life with a few adjustments and stay healthy is a near-miraculous gift to yourself, writes Anne Campbell.

When I worked in daycares, it was a given that you’d probably catch whatever bugs went around. Small children are adorable little disease vectors, and it seems that, for them, ingesting some bugs and bacteria helps their body learn to recognise and fight them across their lifespan. It’s not clear, however, that constantly getting bugs in adulthood works the same, especially since some bugs make you weaker. The idea that you have to get sick to stay well, when examined more closely, seems remarkably convenient for a society that doesn’t want to build infrastructure to prevent suffering and death.


Whenever I bring up Covid, I’m going to lose some readers. But stick with me for a second, because there are pieces of good news here and there. We do actually have systemic public health tools on hand to fight the pandemic. One of the major ones – for this pandemic and probably the next one – is air filtration; a machine that captures particles, including viruses, and filters out clean air. (If you drink clean water, you should breathe clean air too.) Scientists are also working on a mucosal vaccine, which if effective would stop infection and transmission of Covid. Some people are getting cured of long Covid through monoclonal antibodies or SSRIs. Antivirals exist and work.

However, the best tool to fight the pandemic right now has an undeserved bad rap. During the lockdowns, the Ardern government missed its chance to get everyone to embrace masks for what they are: a fucking godsend and literal lifesaver. We made a mistake in framing masking as a dreary obligation to others, when in reality it’s a nigh-miraculous gift to yourself. To have the air (including outdoors, I’m sorry to say) hung with immunity-destroying poison and to remain uninfected, to be able to go about your daily life with a few adjustments and stay healthy. You don’t have to like yourself to remember that doing the things you love – going for a run, visiting your niece, retaining the brainpower to make art — is something deeply worth protecting.

A mask is a difficult gift to receive; it literally comes with strings attached. I understand why most people find it hard to be grateful, in these terrible times, for a gift that brings discomfort to their day-to-day life. When you first start masking in earnest, it’s also a constant physical reminder that our world has horribly changed and that we can’t go back. It’s not helped by how a lot of affordable masks are physically uncomfortable or unattractive, and that the dizzying array of them is confusing.

To clear it up a bit: any mask is better than none, but if you’re going to wear something, it’s best to have a respirator mask designed to filter air. (The blue surgical ones only keep out droplets and large particles, not airborne viruses like Covid.) N95s, KN95s, KF94s and 3M Auras are the most common and cheap ones, the easiest bet for people new to masking (though if you’re buying online you need to check their legitimacy, since hucksters sell fake and expired ones). For more hardcore masks, a GVS Elipse has the HEPA filters found in air purifiers, and has successfully protected an acquaintance of mine at poorly ventilated indoor gigs. Flo Masks are designed to be comfortable and fit your face. The Airinum Urban Air mask is designed specifically for hard exercise. Some of these are out of reach for poor people, but at least we know they exist.

If you’re finding it too hard to go thermonuclear and mask everywhere, as I now do, you can still make some starts. Inconsistent masking is better than never masking at all; it encourages other people to mask, and it could still make the difference between staying healthy or lying in bed with bone-crushing fatigue. In some ways it gets easier once it’s a habit. The other day, I successfully wore an N95 while aquajogging; if that isn’t a flex on God and country I don’t know what is. Wearing a mask is the opposite of living in fear: it’s facing the facts and braving daily discomfort to treat your own life as worthwhile.

I got Covid on December 21, eventually recovered from the flu-like symptoms, then overdid it slightly by cleaning my room and going for some short walks. On New Year’s Day, it started to hit me that I couldn’t walk around much. When I did move around the house, it was at the pace of an elderly man. It didn’t feel like heart palpitations or breathlessness, though I had both of those – it was a bone-deep awareness that I could not move fast or something bad was going to happen. Weeks later, I triumphed when I could walk as far as the pharmacy, 800m away from my house.

It took over six weeks to get there; maybe not long Covid, but long enough for me to grieve. To face the horror of what the pandemic has done, what being politically abandoned truly means, to realise that a mask will almost never leave my face for the foreseeable future, to know that my life may have just shortened by several years. I watched documentaries about Act Up, the political group that fought Aids in the 80s and 90s, and sobbed as people spoke on screen about how “I may not be able to fight the disease, but I can fight the system”, people who died not long afterwards. Some of these people were infected asymptomatically by HIV a decade before they died. Given how Covid similarly attacks the immune system, we can’t yet be sure it won’t happen to us down the line.

There is no public mourning for Covid deaths. Who are the 3,748 people who have died of it, the 26 who died last week? Were their deaths marked by anyone but their loved ones and some miserable health statisticians? There’s a different type of mourning at work in the much larger group with Long Covid, for futures they thought they would have, for the brain function that keeps disappearing, for the simple pleasure of a long walk. They aren’t seen publicly because they’re stuck at home, trapped by their bodies in their own little privatised lockdowns.

Nowadays, rich people have their antivirals, PCR tests, monoclonal antibodies, nasal photodisinfections, UV lights that kill viruses, air purifiers and CO2 monitors. When they’re photographed maskless, they only look like they’re not taking precautions. When Biden did a maskless speech at a school gym, they took out the windows and put in giant temporary ventilators. 

At times, I have struggled to not get angry with people I know, particularly progressives, for abandoning masks. For the moment, though, I want to treat every powerless person in this mess with care and gentleness. Everyone has trauma around the pandemic, and almost everyone is staying in denial because it feels like the only other option is giving in to crushing despair. Both of those feelings come from propaganda we’re absorbing, not fact. I keep faith against what looks like apathy by knowing that no one wants the pandemic, that most people appreciated the Labour government’s initial response despite how hard it was, that people were disappointed in their failure to handle the virus after 2021, that almost everyone fucking loathed Convoy 2022.

When Act Up started, people joined who had never done activism in their life, and blocked roads and harassed state officials to give Aids victims the treatment they needed. Once people know what public health demands to make, we can form a movement to get what we need. Most movements end up looking the same in the end; put your bodies in space and harass the powerful. This movement just conceals our faces a bit more, over the nose and mouth.

Keep going!