While out walking my dog on this gloriously sunny April day, I was quite amazed by how busy the park was. Not so busy that people gathered in hordes, but busy enough that people had to take carefully chosen routes to maintain social distancing. People walked on the grassy verges on opposite sides of the footpath while graciously nodding, grinning and wishing one another good afternoon (us Brits are a polite bunch!). There was an odd mix of gratitude and suspicion in the air, both glad to see one another, and wary of what the other person might be carrying.
One dog walker stopped me to ask about Hugo’s halti collar and asked how the mechanism works. With a brief demonstration (and a treat for Hugo for his cooperation) from a safe distance, I was sure that Halti would be making business soon. The poor Pomeranian, however, might not be so grateful for my work.
I cut through the woodlands and power marched to get back into open land. Although generally safe at 2pm on a sunny Monday afternoon, there have been a spate of assaults in the woods and nobody really knows where the hotspots are. I should imagine they are nearer the stream where more people walk, but for a lone female, it’s safer to walk through the woods as fast as possible. By the time we got through, even Hugo was feeling the effects of our little jaunt.
And yet, as as we got back into the main area of the park, the most peculiar sight struck me. A lone woman on a bench and everyone around her keeping a very large distance from her. Nevermind the advised two metres, most people were avoiding her by at least three times as many. Why?
As I got closer, I could see that the lady in question, a lady who I knew as a fellow dog walker, was wearing a face mask. She smiled and acknowledged me from behind her mask and I stopped to chat for a while (from a safe distance, of course!). I was aware of the eyes on me, as though I’d gone where nobody else would go, I was living very dangerously- a rebel!
She was fine, she assured me, and Bobby (her dog) was well. The only reason she was wearing the mask was because you don’t know who has the virus and she didn’t want to get it. I smiled emphatically. The one thing I’ve assured anyone I’ve met who has feared the Coronavirus is that even if the symptoms might be mild for them, nobody likes getting sick.
It occurred to me on the way home that there has been an unintended consequence of face mask wearing in the West. While not governmental guidance in the UK, more and more people have been gradually adopting them. On an average ten minute walk in my local community, it is nothing out of the ordinary to see at least three people wearing a face mask. Bristol has 460 confirmed cases in a population of 454,000, slightly more than a 0.1% risk. While most Bristolians are still taking precautions, some people are beginning to gradually relax.
But as I walked, I couldn’t help but chew over the psychology of what I’d just seen.
In Asia, masks are typically worn for one of a few reasons. Because of a smog, because of a pandemic, or because the individual themselves is sick. When the pandemic first began, face masks weren’t only worn to prevent against the disease, they were also worn by infected persons to contain it. As the pandemic spread across the planet, the wearing of face masks became adopted globally. Although not advised for healthy persons, they were advised for vulnerable people and given to those already infected. They were advised in some countries and states, and become compulsory in others. In the UK, no such event happened. Our government’s guidance was simple; Stay home, and stick to hand washing and social distancing.
By now, the wearing of face masks in Asia is almost commonplace. For whatever reason as mentioned above, even young children are used to the wearing of masks out of precaution. In the West, though, the wearing of masks is not nearly so commonplace. Because of that, the masks can carry with them a lot of unintended anxiety.
That I know of, the lady in question has no underlying health conditions. She’s older and widowed, but generally upbeat and in very good shape. Even if mask wearing isn’t compulsory in the UK, it has become something that a lot of people have adopted out of fear of the Coronavirus. I realised then, that this extreme social distancing wasn’t a reaction to the fear of infection, it was a reaction to her fear, or a fear of fear. She had feared infection, and out of fear that she herself was infected because of her choosing to wear a face mask, a lot of people were giving her a very wide berth. It’d have been almost amusing if only the circumstances behind the behaviour weren’t so tragic.
As European governments talk about easing lockdowns, I can’t help but wonder how future pandemics will be viewed and the preventative measures we must take to limit them. As the Duke & Duchess spoke out about the mental health impact of the lockdown, I couldn’t help but find myself agreeing. Will we face future lockdowns and the economic and health problems they bring, or has Coronavirus woken us up to the importance of a fully prepared healthcare system, for which we must all be willing to contribute? Which spreads more rampantly, the fear of the virus, or the virus itself? Will face masks now be something that we adopt in the West during the annual cold and flu season, or will Covid-19 become an exception rather than the norm?
Perhaps also the biggest question on everyone’s mind as we talk of a return to normal, is exactly how normal is our new ‘normal’ going to be?