Potential problems with face masks

A woman with hair partly dyed purple wearing a pollution mask with white, green, yellow and blue stars on it. To her right are some flower pots and behind her is a light green, three-storey building with wooden cladding.
A woman wearing a Vogmask. (Note: masks like these with filters are not suitable for virus containment. Their other masks may be.)

So, finally yesterday the government announced that face masks were to be made mandatory in shops in England, as they have been in Scotland for weeks, from the 24th of July (Friday week), which although it has attracted criticism for lack of urgency, gives people a chance to prepare (ie. buy enough to have one for any shopping trip they may make). This reflects growing acceptance that face coverings do inhibit the spread of the virus in confined spaces such as shops; previously reusable cloth masks were thought to be ineffective (as opposed to medical grade masks) and to make people careless about keeping their distance or, in the early days of lockdown, staying at home. Some disabled people and those with breathing difficulties are exempt although it remains to be seen how these exemptions will be enforced.

I have personally never worn a mask; I have some small surgical ones that my mother bought from a local Korean shop, but it wasn’t big enough to cover my chin; I suspect I will have to remove much of my beard to get a mask to cover me effectively. However, I try to avoid others in shops, often without much success. Shop aisles are too narrow and some of them are too popular to remain uncrowded. The worst experiences I have had are in mini-markets such as the local Tesco stores. You can’t pass people at anywhere near the safe 2m distance. In addition, supermarkets have stopped controlling entry; I have not seen a queue outside any supermarket in weeks. I don’t feel comfortable while shopping and probably won’t until the pandemic is over, mask or no mask. I don’t browse for pleasure anymore.

I don’t have any truck with the idea that masks are an intolerable impingement on freedom. The people that do are typically those who resent having to do anything differently to benefit other people besides their own family or friends, which is reflected in the political choices of many of them. While I have seen many women object on these grounds, another source for the hostility may lie with the fact that face coverings have up until now mostly been worn by Muslim women, making them both foreign and feminine (strangely, I have not seen a substantial uptake of the traditional face coverings among Muslim women recently; those I have seen with covered faces around here and even in parts of Birmingham I have passed through have mostly been wearing masks rather than veils). The only places we are being asked to wear them is in shops and on public transport, which are indoor environments where space is often restricted and it is difficult to keep apart from others. As Covid-19 is a disease which often produces long-term chronic illness even if it does not put someone on a ventilator, needing to wear a mask for a few minutes a day is much less of a restriction on your liberty or that of someone else you might meet than a damaged lung.

However, I can see some teething problems and I hope it is not enforced too aggressively in the first few days. (Shop staff have been told to inform the police if they see someone shopping without a mask; this is likely to amount to an awful lot of calls.) This is new to most people, including me. I don’t know which type of mask is most comfortable, best fitting or most effective. A lot of people are going to be buying masks over the next week and a bit to try and find out which works best for them. It is clear that supermarkets do not have enough to fulfil the demand that is likely to arise over the next week. For example, a branch of Sainsbury’s near where I was working had only a few packs of five with the same set of patterns, two of them decidedly girly (though the website has other pattern sets and says “more stock arriving soon”. I was advised to go online if I just wanted a black one. John Lewis and M&S are only selling the type of face mask that comes in a tube and that you peel off.

Some of us use phones to pay for things that rely on facial identification (newer iPhones for example). They will not identify us with masks on. Of course, it won’t hurt anyone to remove it for just a second, but that depends on shop staff and management having common sense.

So, while wearing masks is a good idea in confined spaces, if they are to be compulsory then they need to be readily available. In other countries governments have provided masks to people; in this country we are expected to just find them or make them ourselves, regardless of our financial state (including indicators of poverty the state knows about, such as receiving benefits). As with soap in the couple of weeks before lockdown, when washing our hands was being promoted as key to stopping the spread of the coronavirus, they are neither readily available nor prominently advertised. We will all need plenty of them — possibly as many as we have T-shirts — and there aren’t plenty available when a large supermarket with something like a quarter of its space given over to clothing has only two packs of five and none for men.

Image source: Liz Henry, via Flickr. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 licence.

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