To mask or not to mask as Covid loses its sting

Governments are lifting restrictions as fewer fatalities are being reported and letting people decide for themselves

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Allan Jacob

Published: Tue 19 Apr 2022, 11:21 PM

With Covid cases falling in the UAE, I have been reflecting on masks and the easing of mandates. Should I use the face-covering often, discard them when the going’s good or purchase cheaper versions as infections slow? Governments are lifting restrictions as fewer fatalities are being reported (the UAE has reported zero deaths for over a month now) and letting people decide for themselves. It’s about choices people make to fall sick or not. Rights are back, pandemic fatigue has set in. Even courts are throwing out masking mandates in the US. Therein lies my dilemma. Does my masking infringe on others’ rights to unmask?

I was deep in thought on the issue on an elevator ride when a chatty family of four stepped into the steely cube. They went silent when they caught sight of me in a mask, making a vain attempt at stabbing at the buttons with my house keys. I noticed they were mask-less and wore a look of surprise on their faces. I still follow the hands-off approach when it comes to surfaces though it’s now clear the virus spreads through the air.

If it’s not a key, I wield the elbow or a knuckle with a flourish. Not so long ago, in 2020, when the worst of the pandemic was upon us, I would jab the head of an empty pen dripping sanitiser at the button on an elevator ride. It was meant to keep me and others who touch the surface safe. I am concerned when people cram into closed spaces and avoid crowds like the plague. I have always been claustrophobic, and the pandemic has only made my situation worse. I prefer to travel solo on elevators or ditch them to take the stairs when they are packed. On this occasion, I was thinking of taking off my mask when the fab four entered.

My consternation during this ride did not stem from the fact that the bunch was inappropriately dressed unless one considers being mask-less inappropriate. But something about their sartorial side was incomplete. Not one of them had the face- covering on: below the nose, or slung over the ear. And this was a relatively smaller, enclosed space where masking rules are clear.

I was in two minds to step out or to stand my ground as they entered the lift, but as the doors closed I decided to stay put. Soon I realized the family was eyeing masked me from the corner of their eyes, taunting, daring me to break free from my mask. Their looks said it: What’s this dumb guy doing in a place like this with his mask on? Sensing that their shifty gazes were upon me, I attempted to look disinterested, tilted my head up, and waited for that familiar ‘ding-ding’ and the digital sign which said Ground Floor. When it did, I was first out as the doors opened and dashed out of the building gasping for air.

Allow me to slip in a health update here. The World Health Organization said even if Covid becomes endemic (which it hasn’t) with smaller outbreaks, it’s not the end of the problem. “I certainly do not believe we’ve reached anything close to an endemic situation with this virus,” said Michael Ryan of the health body. I don’t believe every word the WHO says but I have reason to be cautious.

That’s why it’s important to keep that mask on, though they could be the next major environmental threat after single-use plastic bags that most countries are now phasing out. The world produces 129 billion masks every month, according to some estimates, while 3.4 billion are discarded every day.

The data didn’t deter me from adding the KF94 mask to my arsenal, the Korean one with “3D Design. Pleasant wear, this won’t touch your lips,” said the cover. Nice touch. I picked some 200 of them, individually packed during a recent trip to India. I use them in crowds as they help me breathe with ease as I open my lips wide or grit my teeth. The missus has also settled on this one after some minor domestic disputes.

I have the superior N95s in stock when I think I need extra protection but sparingly use them as they cost more. The pointy-nosed version, though, isn’t my style, so I don’t wear them to work, besides I don’t like those strings attached to my ears. A bagful of cloth masks that experts say are ineffective at staving off the virus is stored in a cupboard. I am wondering what to do with them as I don’t have the heart to see them gone - the sports brands were a favorite two years ago. Then there are the regular surgical masks that I wear when I step out on errands, open the door to take delivery of a parcel, or go cycling with my kids.

There’s a mask for every occasion and season. Their colours change with my moods, like blue for when I am feeling low, and black N95s for when I am stressed and have a long day ahead. The white Korean surgical variety calms my nerves. I can sense a cool draft of air when I am out there wearing them. They spell confidence.

The best thing about masks is that they keep out other germs too. They may be optional as cases ebb but I have no shame in wearing them. I have now stopped insisting that others strap them on in my presence. Once considered a contraption, these facial coverings have become a necessity even though they can mask a smile, or draw a smirk from those around me. Why let Covid have the last laugh?


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