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You’re allowed to smile behind the mask, but do not lower it if you do not have to

A man covered with a face mask walks near long street in Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

A man covered with a face mask walks near long street in Cape Town. Picture: Henk Kruger/African News Agency(ANA)

Published May 27, 2021


I sent a picture of myself and a few colleagues enjoying an al fresco meal in Botrivier this past weekend, to a close friend. I expected her to say something complimentary about the soiree. But no, she immediately censured us with palpable muscularity because we weren’t wearing masks!

This tiny slip in the Covid protocol for the sake of a photograph typifies the complacency that creeps in when our guard slips, and keeps the epidemic going. We need to be more vigilant and true to the protocols if we are ever going to beat this thing.

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Our masks do not prevent us from getting sick. It merely reduces the viral load when we cough or sneeze. Wearing the mask constantly is a signal of our deference to the health of others. It should be my universal banner that says I am in the fight with my brothers and sisters worldwide.

My column is driven by the need for higher literacy. By definition a mask is a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others. It is a covering made of gauze or fibre and fitting over the nose and mouth to protect against air-pollutants, or made of sterile gauze worn to protect the wearer of patient in surgery of other medical arenas. It could be a face pack.

A mask could be the likeness of a person’s face moulded in clay or wax. In a manner of speaking, it can be an expression that means to mask one’s true feelings or character. There are other definitions in the fields of photography, electronics or entomology.

The mask cannot prevent your becoming infected or contaminated. The virus is so small that, if we cold scoop all of the virus load that infected the whole planet, it wouldn’t fill a tea-cup! It is that tiny, yet virulent beyond our imagination. It cannot survive water and soap, head-steaming or nasal irrigation. But we dare not allow any laxity in our observations of the protocols, which include social distancing, hand-washing and wearing the mask.

Another version of the word mask is masque. This is an abbreviation of masquerade, and refers to the Elizabethan courtly tradition of entertainment through song and dance. Often, character changes were effected not by a change of costume, but of the facial covering, hence the homonymic relationship between mask and masque.

Some of Shakespeare’s plays are called masque plays because masks feature prominently. Examples are Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In fact, modern day balls embrace the wearing of masks at grand dance parties, reprising the role of the masks in drama.

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I also wish to point out the use of masks in Achebe’s celebrated novel, Things Fall Apart. Igbo (Nigerian) priests acted as representatives of ancestors by hiding behind bodylength masks.

The tragic hero, Okonkwo himself, is a priest who uses this disguise outside his daily regimen. When he is exposed by being uncovered, it serves as a didactic strategy in Achebe’s narrative that things fall apart. In this case, it was the destruction of the ancient customs and rituals of Nigeria by the muscular incursions of the Christian religion into the Igbo culture. I offer this as critical commentary, and not an opinion on free religious choice.

Finally, those of us who have suffered the inconvenience of car accidents will know that panel-beaters use tape to cover parts that needs to be protected during spray-painting. For this, they use masking-tape, in this case a strategy for protection rather than hiding.

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I hope we all continue to observe the mask rule. You are allowed to smile behind the mask, but do not lower it if you do not have to. This is a national health injunction.

* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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