From protection to philanthropy: The rise of the face mask during lockdown
When future generations page through the history books and pause at the chapter dedicated to the year 2020, they will see thousands and thousands of people wearing face masks.
And even as we are about to enter the second quarter of 2021, public spaces around the globe are still saturated with the sight of people from all walks of life covering their faces.
According to leading medical health experts, including the World Health Organization (WHO), face masks remain one of the most effective non-pharmaceutical tools to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus which has spread to every part of the planet over the past 18 months or so.
While countries across the world scramble to vaccinate enough of their population before another deadly wave of the virus hits, face masks, together with regular hand washing as well as social distancing, remains the protocol for the foreseeable future.
But, as South Africa commemorates the upcoming first anniversary of its unprecedented lockdown, the staggering rise of this piece of material that covers the nose and mouth is something that not many were accustomed to before life as we knew it changed forever.
Last March, when the world-wide pandemic forced most nations to introduce regulations around a lockdown, the WHO announced that healthy members of the general population do not need to be wearing masks and that it should be worn by those with the disease or those in close contact with those infected.
The following month, health officials said that a mere cloth mask would suffice for those who feel healthy and that N-95 and surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.
But as infections continued to rapidly increase during this time, debates among scientists experts began to rage, and by May, it became mandatory for all South Africans to cover their face when they left home.
Three months later, the wearing of masks was so strongly urged in the country that it became a criminal offence to be spotted without one in public.
While South Africa enforced the wearing of masks relatively early in the pandemic compared to other countries, they were relatively common in Asian nations such as China and Hong Kong, even before the coronavirus pandemic.
This is due to their previous experience with the Sars and H1N1 outbreaks.
But for those in the UK, wearing a face-covering in shops and supermarkets only became mandatory from the end of July although members of the public were advised since mid-May to wear coverings in enclosed public spaces.
By this time, most nations across the world made the wearing of face masks when they left their homes compulsory, but the facial covering has been a source of fierce controversy in the US.
Most Americans have been following public health recommendations by wearing masks in public to limit the spread of Covid-19, but others are passionately fighting against them, insisting that they impair individual freedom.
Last year, American Democratic leaders stressed the importance of face masks but while many Republican leaders were vocal about the issue, some, including then-president Donald Trump, were more hesitant to mandate masks, even as their states witnessed surges in Covid-19 infections.
Even as President Joe Biden officially took charge of the US in January and urged his nation to wear their face masks, there is still no state-wide mandate around its use.
Texans and those in Mississippi are, since the beginning of this month, no longer even required to cover their faces in public.
But in South Africa, the use of face masks as a viable tool against the coronavirus fight is being emphasised more than ever before even as the country began its inoculation programme last month.
President Cyril Ramaphosa even credited the use of the facial coverings, along with other non-pharmaceutical measures, as one of the tools which stopped the second wave of Covid-19 infections.
“We were able to emerge from the second wave because most people adhered to the tighter restrictions and observed the basic health protocols, including wearing masks in public and social distancing,” Ramaphosa said during his address to the nation last month.
As face masks continue to be a common sight across the globe, many have used it as an opportunity to inject some beauty into their lives during one of the most challenging times in human history.
This has led to the rise of ‘Covid Couture,’ a global phenomenon of personalised fashionable face masks which are made with luxurious fabrics and come in different colours, fits and designs.
While these in vogue items have served as a stylish distraction during these unprecedented times, it has also kept the fashion industry afloat with many of their customised items being donated to in-need recipients.
This includes the likes of Christian Siriano, Zara, H&M and Prada who are all using their factories to produce necessities solely for medical staff while the proceeds of English footballer Jesse Lingard’s J Lingz face masks will also be donated to Britain’s National Health Service (NHS).
Face masks during the Covid-19 pandemic have also contributed to philanthropic efforts around the world, with the proceeds from the sales of some facial coverings being donated to a charitable cause.
Acclaimed African designer Kahindo Mateene who is now based in New York City was one of the designers who put her craft to good use as the funds generated from her ‘buy one give two’ mask initiative have been donated to the Brooklyn Hospital and given to essential workers in the US city.
In South Africa, local fashion house AMEN has been making masks for corporates with proceeds from the sales going towards the Growing Champions Foundation, a Randburg-based charity that supports children who don't have families of their own.
While there are many uses for ‘Covid Couture’, acclaimed local designer JJ Schoeman who has also been making bespoke face masks for his clients, believes that this phenomenon provides a platform for people to express themselves while also being protected from Covid-19.
“We are fooling ourselves if we think for a second that consumers are satisfied with the ‘ordinary’.
“A crisis might limit some people’s personal choices, but I have learned consumers prefer more, or just better than what is on offer. The key lies in individuality, personal choice, and style or status, even more so during tough times.”