Stores are selling them, mothers-in-law are sewing them, and most people (thankfully) across Canada are wearing them. Fabrics vary: cotton is popular, though targeted advertisements are now hawking the new and ostensibly more breathable linen kind. The panoply of patterns, colours, and insignia denoting brand loyalty marries our needs (protection) to our wants (consumption). Enter our era’s boldest fashion statement: the face mask.
If the essence of beauty is variety, then we might suppose that the essence of morality is simplicity. So it’s no surprise that the elegantly unpretentious and disposable face mask is one of the most popular products of the day.
And, indeed, the disposable variety has great appeal. It’s always clean, until it’s not, and then you simply throw it away. It’s readily available, too. At Canadian Tire, you pay about $30 for a fifty-pack of the three-ply sort (reminiscent of that other three-ply COVID commodity). The purchase itself offers a little dopamine hit as you tap your card: This purchase feels good. . . . I can buy my safety. . . . I can display my virtue! And it does and should feel good to remind ourselves that we are showing solidarity and concern for the well-being of others. But there’s something else happening here: the mask sings out to our “deepest consumeristic impulses,” as Samanth Subramanian has pointed out in the Guardian. “In the absence of a drug or a vaccine, the mask is the only material protection we can buy.”
Dr. Schnabel’s plague mask, with its aromatics and avian beak, may have had more going for it aesthetically, but modern history is more relevant here than medieval. During the 1918–19 flu pandemic, the wearing of masks was enforceable by law in places, but, of course, there were anti-maskers then too. Even when diligently donned, masks didn’t always stop H1N1. T. S. Eliot and his first wife, Vivienne, caught the virus in December 1918. Capturing something of those ailing times, the poet wrote of an “unreal city”: “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many.”
Eliot’s imagery reveals something about how face masks can screen us from a parlous reality: the threat seems distant, unreal, foggy (especially for the bespectacled among us). Has our sense of time’s passing been blurred along with our glasses? It’s strange to think that it’s been almost two decades since the SARS outbreak of 2002–03, when people once again began wearing medical masks outside of hospitals — as they had in 1918. Even though SARS was declared contained on July 5, 2003, people in East Asia, especially China, Taiwan, and Japan, continued to cover their noses and mouths — now as a form of courtesy to others and as a shield from air pollution.
Yes, we filter out the germs, and so too the particulate matter that’s released by heavy industry and fossil fuels (our latter-day “brown fog”). But consider this: the carbon that pollutes the air also provides the synthetic polymer fabric for the disposable filtration systems we sport. Remember how the tobacco industry once funded lung cancer research? The dramatic irony is tortuous: Are we the characters in the play, or the audience, or both?
China produces most of the world’s protective face masks. Recent videos bring to mind the optical rhythms of Weimar cinema: the undulation of comforting blue being lifted, lowered, stamped, steamed, sewn, packaged. In Rizhao, which has been in the game since 1993, the process is masterfully streamlined: The synthetic material is brought in. The non-woven material is ultrasonically welded together. The ear loops are affixed. And, along the way, everything is machine-checked before being double-checked by human hands. Each little veil is slipped into a plastic sleeve and kissed with a seal before being placed into a box for shipment.
The process is not dissimilar in Warren, Michigan, where GM has converted one of its facilities to spit out masks. Factory-line workers labour in ten-hour shifts to produce the much-needed item. Their bosses, understandably, have had to increase production. Much of the work is automated, yet human labour still plays a role. Last March and April, they couldn’t meet demand. We were shocked in July, when a flurry of reports told of China’s exploitation of Uighur workers — including those making our masks. But the long shifts closer to home in Warren aren’t exactly appealing either.
The trip from Warren or Rizhao to Leduc or Nain is a long and costly one. The endless tolls are welded into our “disposable” protection — the price of capitalism running our machines and slicing through our waters and skies. Sleek industry is a co-creator of COVID‑19; when we pull on the mask, we inadvertently put our mistakes and their consequences on full display. As a fashion statement in a consumer society, the mask is hollow. As a symbol and a warning, it is a powerful recapitulation of the exploitation of resources and labour.
Sometimes a mask’s short life is cut even shorter. An ear loop breaks. Or maybe it simply gets left behind, as we shuffle our mittens and scarves and toques. It flutters to the ground or the gutter, gets caught in the brush, or blows away. For a while, we can’t follow its journey. But it will surely end with the rest of our waste and broken belongings — as detritus, from which we’ll need to protect ourselves in the future.