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Mary Kenny

They make me look like a crank and their effectiveness is debatable, but I feel a much safer in a face mask

Mary Kenny


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Covering up: a man wearing a mask walking in Belfast city centre

Covering up: a man wearing a mask walking in Belfast city centre

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Covering up: a man wearing a mask walking in Belfast city centre

Here's a generalisation: in this country we are totally unsuited to social distancing because we have a strongly social culture.

Read any travel book about this part of the world over the past hundred years and the conclusions are always this: whatever grumbles the visitor may have had about unreliable weather, reckless driving habits or inadequate food standards (the lack of imaginative vegetable dishes was a common complaint until recent years), on one point they were agreed - the people were consistently warm and friendly.

They'd always meet and greet you. There'd always be the open welcome and the hearty handshake. My late husband even said that the Kerry people were so emotionally effusive and quick to hug that it made him feel like "even more of a stuck-up Limey" than he actually was.

Still, what has to be, has to be, and as the nuns in my convent school used to say, the rules are there to be obeyed.

Most people have been doing what they have to do, however much it goes against the grain.

The face mask is an innovation which seems not wholly popular. Informal reports from around the country say wearing the thing is patchy. Sometimes in crowded places or supermarkets there's a 50-50 showing.

A friend in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, says local people are "too shy" to don a face mask. In parts of Wicklow, it's hard to get hold of them. Some people prefer to put a scarf around their nose and mouth. Some claim that the home-crafted mask is superior to the medical ones you can (usually) buy online.

There are even instructions available on how to make an effective face mask from a vacuum-cleaner bag. An A or B-cup bra can apparently also be refashioned as a face mask.

Whether the face mask is effective as a protection against the coronavirus is disputed.

There are many experts who state that it doesn't offer much defence or that its effectiveness is limited. Some even claim wearing a mask is self-deluding - thinking it will make you safe when it may not (the surgical N95 respirators - more complex medical masks worn in hospital conditions - obviously do a more thorough job of protecting against airborne particles, but they are not recommended for the general public).

But there's a suggestion that mask-wearing can provide a psychological benefit. Dutch sociologist Peter Baehr studied mask-wearing in Hong Kong during the 2003 Sars outbreak and concluded that it could be a symbol of solidarity between groups. The mask was a non-verbal signal saying, "We all have the responsibility to show our awareness of the contagion".

I've long observed Japanese and Chinese people wearing masks on transatlantic flights and for about the last 10 years I've taken to wearing one myself when flying. Airplanes are full of germs, in my experience. You are breathing in recycled air.

Paradoxically, in the days when passengers smoked, the airlines had to pump out the smoky air and bring in actual fresh air.

I believe, though it could be subjective, that wearing a mask has protected me from chest infections during flights, even though I know they make me look like a crank (The masks cost about a tenner for 50, but that was before the pandemic struck).

But we do not have in a mask-wearing culture. Hiding your face is not a comfortable optic. When the discussion arose in several European countries about the freedom, or not, to wear the Islamic burqa, it was frequently said the human face should not be hidden.

It was not only cordial but also sometimes important for identity purposes to see the full facial contours and expressions. On these grounds the burqa was banned in several countries.

The Austrians have now decided health is more vital than cultural traditions and face masks have been deemed necessary by chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Whatever the opinion of the medical experts, I feel psychologically protected by my face mask, which I now wear when out for my brief permitted daily airing. I feel it is signalling that I am taking the social distancing seriously, much as I inherently dislike it. It also reminds me not to touch my face, which is another element in the mixture.

A quirky cosmetic question arises with the wearing of the face mask: what does a lady do about lipstick? It doesn't make sense to apply lipstick behind a mask and, moreover, it stains the mask.

But a French report published last week claimed that cosmetics, and particularly lipstick, were a mood lifter - "a remedy against melancholy". The various shades of red in the lipstick product are "an armour ... and a balm". (Guerlain invented the modern lipstick in 1870. He called it 'Ne m'Oubliez Pas', meaning 'forget me not') Lipstick sales have, regrettably, fallen recently, in contrast to the lipstick index during the Second World War: when women couldn't afford a big treat, they found solace in a little one, like a new lipstick.

As for the masks, as time goes on, new forms, designs and patterns will emerge. Creativity and ingenuity will produce innovative shapes and variations.

Although we desperately hope the time for wearing them will not go on too long.

Belfast Telegraph