Masks, The True Measure Of Covid-Era Patriotism
Passengers wear masks, at CSM Terminus in Mumbai, on March 17, 2020. (Photograph: PTI)

Masks, The True Measure Of Covid-Era Patriotism

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I met my version of the unmasked Trader Joe’s shopper—she screamed at employees who asked her to wear a mask, calling them “democratic pigs”—when I went grocery shopping in Bangalore. She stood in front of the munchies aisle, lovingly touching every packet of chips, her mask hanging over her chin. I asked her to pull it up, she refused and began yelling at me. Unlike the U.S. store, my grocer didn’t see fit to ask her to leave.

In Andhra Pradesh, a government official assaulted a colleague because she asked him to wear a mask. Expect more such incidents in the weeks to come.

Masks, The True Measure Of Covid-Era Patriotism

I’m writing this on a day Covid-19 cases have shown a record surge – in my city, my country, and the world. As cases crossed the 10 million mark globally with a third of all new cases being reported from India and Brazil and safe haven Bangalore succumbed, the new measure of patriotism seemed obvious.

Forget the pointless distractions of equating loyalty to the nation with #BoycottChina and follow this better way to display your patriotism. Wear a mask, save your fellow citizens. Be patriotic, it costs nothing. The marketing possibilities are endless. Since it’s only a scrap of cloth, every citizen can participate.

Then all you’ll need is old-fashioned facial recognition to identify a patriotic citizen – even without knowing her religion, gender, caste, class, age or Aadhaar number.

In an age when we decide whether or not we hate someone after learning their name or examining their clothes, a new, masked equality might just be our saviour.
A shopper wearing a mask wheels a grocery cart, in Mumbai, on March 25, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)
A shopper wearing a mask wheels a grocery cart, in Mumbai, on March 25, 2020. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

By this rule, health workers are the most patriotic Indians. And those who abuse and attack them and deny them a place to stay are, clearly, the least nationalistic.

I’m sad to report my neighbourhood failed this test. When I decided to resume my morning walks recently, I encountered a cloud of respiratory droplets hanging menacingly over the circumference of the park. Jolly badminton players, millennials exchanging workout tips, cyclists, dog walkers and runners all had one thing in common. Almost nobody was wearing a mask.

About 100 metres down the road stood a lovely old church. In the crowded settlement behind it, a coronavirus death had been reported.

The city’s police announced it would file criminal cases against those who didn’t wear masks in public spaces. They should set their own house in order first.

I’ve seen enough police officers and regular citizens who wear their masks innovatively: as a necklace, a ‘beard’, tucked safely in a pocket or dangling from one ear. Any day now I’m expecting to spot a local version of the man who wore his mask over his eyes on an aeroplane in the U.S.
A police inspector appeals migrant workers to respect social distancing guidelines,  in Bengaluru, on May 1, 2020. (Photograph: PTI
A police inspector appeals migrant workers to respect social distancing guidelines, in Bengaluru, on May 1, 2020. (Photograph: PTI

Cubbon Park regular Priya Chetty-Rajagopal said for four days a group of them ran a park marshall campaign reminding unmasked visitors, even recording transgressions, until they finally gave up. “We saw chinster, lipster masks and even wrister and pocketster masks. Not many face masks.” Local authorities were forced to seal another park in a prosperous neighbourhood because people refused to distance or wear masks. Across our worst-hit cities, people routinely enter elevators, attend meetings (where they touch their face repeatedly), go to office, and shop – all without their masks.

They may not have banded together yet like Florida’s anti-maskers, who fling phrases like “crime against humanity” when talking about the humble mask—increasingly the new symbol of a sharply divided world whose fault lines are visible most clearly in the world’s oldest democracy—but they do exist across our cities.

After a photograph of home minister Amit Shah wearing a mask incorrectly went viral on Twitter, many Indians on the micro-blogging site dug up several similar images and wondered why he wasn’t leading by example.

Home Minister  Shri Amit Shah chairing a meeting, in New Delhi, on May 8, 2020. (Photograph: PIB)
Home Minister  Shri Amit Shah chairing a meeting, in New Delhi, on May 8, 2020. (Photograph: PIB)

Why would a top government official take this serious issue so lightly? Someone should have tried the desperate tactic of appealing to his toxic masculinity like U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did with President Donald Trump when she said, “Real men wear masks.”

The answer to why both men don’t like masks is quite simple really: more than saving you, masks are important because they can save the lives of people around you.

As author Pico Iyer put it on Twitter, “The coronavirus has taught us all the first law of civil society: one wears a mask (figuratively as well as literally) to protect others, not oneself.”

For a politician who was always abysmal on the empathy parameter, Shah’s lack of concern about wearing a mask correctly isn’t exactly surprising. Ditto Trump, who never wears masks.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis wears a mask during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2020. (Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)
Colorado Governor Jared Polis wears a mask during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 2020. (Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times/Bloomberg)

Also read: Make Masks Accessories, Not Annoyances

“A mask is not a political statement, it’s an IQ test,” tweeted environmental activist John Lundin. He’s partly correct, but wearing a mask can be one way to revive popular dissent in the midst of a pandemic.

Human rights organisation Amnesty International launched #UnGagDissent, urging citizens to wear a mask to protest the arrests of Indian students, academics and poets for speaking up. Amnesty asked Instagram users to click a selfie, add their digital dissent mask to it, and use it as a tool to demand the right to free speech.

Sonali Gupta, clinical psychologist and author of Anxiety, says denial and invincibility are two reasons people ignore/defy the rules around masks. “One of the reactions, when it comes to any kind of prolonged trauma or grief, is denial. It’s a way for people to deal with their own anxiety but, in this case, it comes at a massive cost,” she says.

Pedestrians walk past customers sitting outside at a bar in Tucson, Arizona, on May 11, 2020. (Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians walk past customers sitting outside at a bar in Tucson, Arizona, on May 11, 2020. (Photographer: Cheney Orr/Bloomberg)

Gupta says many people who don't fall in the main risk group believe that if they follow home remedies and practise regular breathing exercises, nothing will happen to them. “They believe that ‘If I think positive, I’m going to be fine’,” she says.

“A lot of people are working with the invincibility narrative,” adds Gupta. “They feel the last few months have been spent in suspension, I'm going to live freely now. In their so called quest for personal freedom, they miss out on the collective responsibility to everyone else.”

Let’s offer them a new reason to wear a mask. What better time to relearn patriotism than in the middle of a pandemic?

Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.

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