The Starting Line.
For being a designer, all forms communication and the world around me is just as important to my work as it is research online or within a book. From the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic back in March 2020 to today, this has impacted and changed my perspective on one item that has become a symbol and deeply associated with the pandemic, the face mask.
Today, this small square of fabric has become an essential part of everyday life by protecting ourselves against covid-19, but it wasn’t always straight forward.
Over the course of the pandemic my view to mask wearing has been influenced by my friends and family, and most importantly, government advise, but also due to my change in career, from an art assistant to a Carer. Although for both occupations I was required to wear a mask, the reasons behind each are quite different.
My view over this journey wasn’t always the same, as messages from the government became unreliable and these mixed messages didn’t always make sense at the time. This misinformation resulted in people having conflicted views just on this one small piece of fabric.
At the start of my journey masks were seen as an unnecessary part to stopping the spread of covid-19 and was viewed as just another added item increasing the skyrocketing amount of single use items littering our planet every day.
This ‘zine’ is filled with research, facts, studies and my own response to my journey of having to wear a mask throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Evolution of the Mask.
The evolution of the simple mask has been an extensive journey over the years. From the first masks more than 2,000 years ago during the Roman Empire, which were made out of an animal’s bladder. These were used in the same way the modern mask is today, to protect wearers from toxic vapours. (A brief history of masks from the 17th-century plague to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 2020)
Take the Plague, for example, these medical masks worn by doctors during the 17th Century, were designed to mimic a bird’s beak. Far from the normal shaped mask seen today, this beaked shaped mask was designed because of the speculation that virus spread through miasmas i.e., bad smells that wafted through the air. To avoid this the masks were stuffed with herbs and spices to ‘mask’ the odours believed to have spread the virus. (The protective mask through History - CurioKids, 2021)
Nearly three centuries later this concept was still used. During the first world war after the first German gas attack, protective masks appeared. These masks had gauze pads that were soaked in a chemical to ward off toxic gases. Through to the Second World War the gauze was replaced by a carbon filter, a breathing apparatus. (A brief history of masks from the 17th-century plague to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 2020) Masks such as these are still used today in the modern filter mask. The concept behind each mask has stayed broadly the same throughout history.
Like today during the Covid-19 Pandemic many people have made and sold their own masks. Many designed to help the front-line workers. Human nature to nurture those in need has never changed throughout the years when the world is in crisis. The similarity to today’s crisis and that of the 1918 influenza epidemic, women knitted socks and rolled bandages for the soldiers to use as a quick alternative to a mask, this became a patriotic duty to the women of North America, as it is today during the covid-19 crisis as it was back in 1918, ‘this became an emblem of public spiritedness and discipline’. (A brief history of masks from the 17th-century plague to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 2020)
Even through a pandemic people have come together to help those within their community. Many homemade masks have been made to help those on the frontline. This way of giving back helped those in need but also this gave those who had become unemployed, a way of pulling through a world that to many has fallen apart.
Fig 1 - (Roman face mask, 2021)
Fig 2 - (Mask worn by a doctor at the end of the 17th century when visiting those afflicted by the plague., 2021)
Fig 3 - (Antigaz ask set mod. Sch MS, Bundeswehr, german army, circa 1980, inv nr200800624, 2021)
Vaccine or Masks?
In other countries like Japan, the public have embraced mask-wearing since the Spanish flu outbreak and also as protection against rising CO2. It was said that mask wearing symbolised ‘modernity’ during the post war era. Many of the Japanese continued to wear masks to prevent even catching the flu up until the 1970s when the flu vaccine was introduced. After the release of the flu vaccine mask wearing decreased. However, this slowly increased over the years due to a pollen increase and masks were introduced again to prevent allergies. This coincided with the drop in the effectiveness of the Flu vaccinations.
Throughout Japan mask-wearing skyrocketed from the 1970s Spanish flu to the 21st century with the outbreaks of SARS and Avian influenza. Mask wearing wasn’t enforced but a protective measure to those who were sick and didn’t want to infect the healthy. This allowed people to take individual responsibility for their own health and the health of others.
Even through the Covid-19 crisis mask wearing in japan hasn’t changed like that of the many countries around the world day. Mask wearing in japan is still the norm and has become a form of politeness. (The protective mask through History - CurioKids, 2021)
Likewise, when the Covid-19 vaccination was introduced, questions surfaced about wearing a mask after receiving the vaccination. As the vaccination was your own protective bubble from the virus, so why was it necessary to wear a mask?.
Once was a Racial Target now a Duty.
Today many people criticize those who don’t wear a mask. In an online survey I conducted, 95% of people said they felt it was a disgrace to see another person not following the current regulations to wearing a mask and that they felt unsafe. Even if they were exempt or not, most of the participants were worried about approaching others not wearing a mask even with social distancing in place. However, there was a 50% increase in those who didn’t wear a mask during the first UK lockdown to the third.
During my time throughout the beginning of the pandemic I was one of many who didn’t wear a mask. However, now as it is enforced, my view matches my participants who took part in my survey. This trend of accepting this new ‘norm’ has gone on a steady rise since the first lockdown back in April 2020.
Japan and many Asian cultures have made mask wearing an everyday norm. For them this was ingrained from their need for protection from air pollution, so that masks were generally accepted long before Covid. Ironically, given that the mask is intended to protect others, in Canada, during the early days of Covid-19 many Asians were targeted for wearing masks more than other cultures. This subjected them to racial attacks both verbal and physical. (A brief history of masks from the 17th-century plague to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, 2020)
Is this because people associate Covid-19 with the Asian culture as this first originated from China or is it simple because this wasn’t the norm and people are afraid of those who stand out. Today this couldn’t be more different.
Like those views of the participants in the survey many people didn’t wear masks during the first UK lockdown. This may have been due the fact that this wasn’t the norm and many didn’t want to be subjected to being ‘different’ or this may simply be as the mask symbolises the threat of covid-19, which makes people more fearful. This conflicted the views of many, even the governments advice was reflected in the same way.
However, it is important to note that the use of a mask is more to protect others than to protect yourself. Therefore, the use of masks during a pandemic only works best if a sufficiently large number of people wear a mask. If the percentage is low, then little or no benefit would accrue.
A Careful Choice of Words.
Today the simple face mask, a small square piece of fabric, has become an essential part of everyday life that helps protect ourselves against covid-19. But it wasn’t always the case. Both the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) sowed confusion amongst the public about the use of face masks. During the early days of covid-19 it was recommend that masks weren’t essential. This caused confusion amongst many, not only about the use of masks but about the pandemic as a whole. (Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus, 2021)
Had it not been for this confusion, evidence suggests that 33,000 deaths could have been avoided if 95 percent of people wore masks in public.
(Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus, 2021)
Having a sense of power or authority can influence many people. Quotes by the previous U.S. President, Donald Trump, show that the abuse of power can influence many. He took to social media to express his views on the pandemic and the virus. Using popular platforms like twitter where the majority of users are below 50 has an influential effect on the public across a large scale.
"Don't be afraid of Covid"
"We have it totally under control. It’s one person coming in from China. It’s going to be just fine."
Quotes of power
And a quote from his own experience with Covid-19 - “I went through it. Now, they say I'm immune. I can feel—I feel so powerful.” (Timeline of Trump’s Coronavirus Responses, 2021) These quotes could be seen as a form of hope, but to others this is also seen as a harmful choice of words that can have deadly consequences and an impact that spirals out of control. The case in point would be the appointment of the Supreme Court Judge, where many participants followed the President’s lead, and did not where masks. The event was later described by medical and media as a ‘Super Spreader’ event.
A study published in the ‘Health Affairs’ compared the Covid-19 growth rate before and after the regulations of masks. This showed that after masks were enforced the infection rate slowed down daily. This also was evident in the death rates across 198 countries. (Still Confused About Masks? Here’s the Science Behind How Face Masks Prevent Coronavirus, 2021)
Number of covid related deaths in the UK as of April 2021
Fig 5 - (Alexander, 2020)
Fig 4 - (Colson, 2016)
A Masks Bewitchment.
Before Covid-19 surfaced to become today’s new world, the process of global mutation was already underway. In a short period, the world has transitioned to a cyber world long before Covid-19 came into existence. The current crisis has accelerated this process. The online life of a person hiding behind their screens is that of a digital mask. A screen or mask, they no longer have a face.
The mask has been used throughout history to conceal or mutate one’s identity. The production of The Phantom of the Opera, revolves around the mystery of the man hiding within the opera with a half-hidden face, which many are left wondering throughout to what is behind the mask? (Get Your Freak On, 2017)
Fig 6 - (Rix-Standing, 2020)
Fig 7 - (James Price, 2020)
The beaked face doctors of the plague and even those of the more modern gas masks throughout the First and Second World Wars resemble an eery horror movie of the bewitched and haunting figures tending to the sick. Will the simple mask in years to come be the new face of a horror movie?
Within my survey 80% of participants have to wear a mask for their occupation along with other relevant PPE. All occupations would require communication to others. The loss of visual and sound communication to those impaired can impact both involved. Masks can mute and take the ability away to lip read and view a person’s facial expression. All are forms of communication, this itself poses a problem. The mask has taken away the freedom of the few but allowed the freedom of many.
Today the wearing of masks isn’t that of a disguise but intended to protect and keep those who are most frail safe. But to those who are frail, face an impeding adverse effect. The mask can impede communication to those with hearing impairment, this also prevents those who have a job involving care the challenge of communication. The notion which could also prevent the action altogether. So, does the mask in a way have an impact on the duty of care we need to give to others in need? (The protective mask through History - CurioKids, 2021)
There’s an irony in an item used for ‘care’ but is being ‘uncared’ for
The basic face mask is made from fabric and plastic, a single use product, but through a surge in mask wearing, has become a new threat to our eco-systems, for an item which is meant to protect us is also causing us harm. 376 million face masks are estimated to be entering our landfills every month.
According to a survey by The Virustatic Shield found that only 16% of participants use at least two disposable masks a week. This equates to 21.32 million masks each week for that area of the population. A further 12% said that they use five or more masks per week, which amounts to 40.95 million face masks being disposed every week. This totals to an estimate of 94 million masks being thrown away every week.
With all plastic items the time for them to decompose take hundreds of years. Its estimated that the time for a single face mask to decompose will take up to 450 years. (94 million face masks being thrown away every week - Environment Journal, 2021)
However by reusing a disposable face mask this defeats the purpose of its use to protect the wearer and those around them. This also is the case for fabric homemade masks that can be washed after use. By repeatedly touching the face mask that is designed to block out infectious virus particles from entering our respiratory system, you run a higher risk of transferring these particles to your face via your hands, as well as other surfaces that are touched by others. (94 million face masks being thrown away every week - Environment Journal, 2021)
In a perfect world you would have to be head to toe in PPE to prevent this as the average person touches their face 16 times an hour. This number chain will keep increasing if we count the number of items touched in a supermarket.
In the Survey I conducted, 95% of participants were worried about the lack of care by others taken to dispose of their masks properly. This also worried the participants with the amount being thrown away adding to the increasing problem of the ongoing plastic pollution crisis.
The disposal of the face mask causes another issue for those workers at landfill sites. With disposable face masks containing plastics this means that any infectious particles left on the surface will sit on the surface for longer. (94 million face masks being thrown away every week - Environment Journal, 2021)
In an ideal world the solution would be to swap the disposable mask for masks that have an antiviral covering thus allowing them to be reusable. This can then be re-worn several times without the risk to others of passing on the virus. Limiting the number of washes will also make the face mask even more environmentally friendly. This would also mean the limited use of fabric masks as these in itself aren’t environmentally friendly nor effective when re-worn without washing frequently. (94 million face masks being thrown away every week - Environment Journal, 2021)
With all our new sustainable products today you would think this would have already be in use today.
With my occupation as a Carer, this is something I have to face on every shift. Every contact with the same client means the face masks has to be disposed of. With an average of 2 people per shift in 12 hours this could equate to 24 masks being disposed of in a single shift.
From being a person who disliked and disproved of the function of a mask, this became apparent from my job as carer that my views had to change in order to carry out my job.
Nearing the end of a Journey (Hopefully)
Over this zine I have discussed the facts, studies and views shown by others on the journey the mask has taken over the years and more so over this past year during the pandemic.
This very same journey for many is still ongoing and piling up slowly. From the start of this journey my view was far different than what it is now. But this has given me an insight in to the further problems the Covid-19 crisis has unravelled, unfolding into further problems.
Has this square fabric item became a part of our ‘new’ everyday life, an everyday accessory necessary to function in today’s society? Will this have a counter effect on those who once judged for those wearing a mask but now towards those who stop wearing a mask in public, once it’s safe to do so? Will this cause a negative stream shared by others to continue and will this ultimately reflect on our planet?
The increasing level of masks thrown away and piling up. Is this the mountain that we next have to face? The aftermath of an item once used as a protection and a cause for safety by many is now the very thing we need to prevent from harming our wildlife and eco-system. As our journey is nearing the clearing are we also turning towards another bump in the road that we need to overcome?
There’s a bigger picture than just the Covid-19 pandemic, this crisis has helped highlight many problems to our society and climate. Is it a saving grace that we can look back at what has happened over this pandemic and prepare future generations to do better and learn from our mistakes or is it too late?