It is the season of goodwill.
So, can I offer a scintilla of encouragement to a group who don’t see much of it in these pages?
You float among us, mouths and noses hidden, in the supermarket and on the Tube; sometimes even walking down the empty street. Around 2% of the London or Norwich population, I’d estimate, which is a lot fewer than the 50% I saw on the Taipei Metro and buses six weeks ago but isn’t wholly insignificant. You cannot breathe freely, nor wear glasses without them steaming up. Your mask swiftly acquires a scurf of debris and bacteria and disrupts the microflora of the skin beneath. Worse, and forgive my saying so, but, to the rest of us, you resemble living ghosts. We know not whether you smile or scowl. Many of you seem anxious to avoid any contact at all. We see the fear in your eyes and movements.
Let me be clear. I understand that some folk mask only briefly, and with some logic. They have colds, Covid or flu, and think it’s polite to mask until they recover. It’s a dubious proposition, given that masks won’t stop aerosolised virus and have no proven efficacy in preventing the spread of SARS-CoV2 or influenza at population levels. It’s also potentially dangerous because, as Jenny Harries (now Head of the UKHSA) pointed out early in the pandemic, wearing a mask while unwell likely promotes re-inhalation of virus particles, increasing the viral load. This cannot be healthy. Others, I appreciate, have good reason to mask: they are on shoplifting expeditions; plan trouble on the streets, or intend to paintball ULEZ cameras. These aren’t the folks I’m trying to reach. They have good or bad reasons to mask and, more vitally, aren’t doing so for very long.
No, the folks to whom I want to extend my hand are those of you who wear masks whenever you venture out and have done since 2020.
I appreciate that some of you are immunosuppressed, were told to shield in 2020 and haven’t given up, even though the Shielding Programme ended in September 2021, and even though you never previously masked for fear of influenza or any other respiratory virus at least as harmful as Omicron SARS-CoV2. Some of you were overwhelmed by Project Fear’s posters and exhortations not to kill granny and are now afflicted with Coronaphobia. You deserve sympathy, not derision. The Covid propaganda effort was a vile scam against free citizens. But that’s no justification for continuing to fall for it.
I will add – as also deserving sympathy and support – those coerced to mask by employer or peer pressure. For example, the unfortunate cabin crew on my excellent China Airlines flight from Taipei to London last month. The stewardesses wore masks for 15 hours straight. Since they were outnumbered 30 to one by unmasked passengers, a few coughing, their face covering was self-evidently pointless. And must have been deeply unpleasant for them. It’s not as bad as foot binding, but scarcely more sensible.
What drives my sudden empathy is recent cataract surgery. Both eyes: one week apart by an excellent man, seen privately at Moorfields. The operations was tricky owing to other medication and a previous problem with one eye. And because, though some freak of hereditary, I have a narrow anterior chamber, restricting the surgeon’s working space. Now, three weeks on, my vision is better than pre-surgery, and keeps improving. The surgeon is pleased and has sent me away for a couple of months before a final assessment, adding: “You won’t need glasses any longer, except for reading.”
And there’s the rub.
I’ve worn glasses from childhood to the present, except for a few years in my early 20s. I’m mid-60s now and putting them on of a morning is a normal part of dressing. I’m naked without them. It’s as if I’ve forgotten to put my trousers on and have wandered down the street in my underpants. Everyone knows me wearing glasses and I’m self-conscious without them.
Worse, I realise that, subconsciously, I see glasses not just as optical correction but also as vital safety kit. Without them my eyes risk imminent disaster. Which will surely befall them. Suddenly, I have an inkling of how you perma-masked folk must feel. Glasses were my shield, just as your mask is yours. Being told they’re unnecessary doesn’t make them unnecessary in my head.
If I walk into town with my wife, and it’s raining, the tips of her umbrella’s ribs dance at my eye level, for she is shorter than I. I swiftly become convinced that I will be poked in an unshielded eye. I consequently become paranoid, make ungenerous comments about how lethally she’s holding the umbrella, and she becomes cross. By the time we reach M&S we are barely speaking.
And I know it is only going to be worse, much worse, when I resume my ambition to walk the U.K.’s coastline. I’ve only the West Coast of Scotland left – from the Mull of Galloway to Arran, Kintyre, Oban, Barra, Stornoway, Ullapool and finally Cape Wrath, which I’ve already reached from the other side. The wind is wild up there. It whips the sand along the beaches and lashes your face on the clifftops. How will unprotected eyes face that assault? Even worse, come April, I’ll be back to photographing wild orchids in rough English woodlands. And in abject terror of having naked eyeballs scratched by an over-hanging bramble.
Already, there’s a temptation to wear sunglasses whenever I go out, however gloomy the day; to find a pair of lab safety-specs for the orchid hunting or to ask the optician to run up a pair of bifocals with a plain-glass ‘blank’ at the top and a reading panel below.
All would return me to my comfort zone; just as your mask does.