IF you’d told me two years ago that our nation would be divided and almost at daggers drawn about an issue as seemingly innocuous as masks, I’d have laughed tiny droplets of saliva in your face.
But that is where we are, as we enter day 627 of the pandemic in Ireland, with few signs it will end any time soon. We’re having rows and taking stands over... masks.
I suppose this is what a pandemic can do to a worn-out country and its people.
It’s not just the debate on masks per se - do you wear one? Or is it an affront to you? What if wearing one becomes a law? Would you break that law? Or what if it’s just advice? Are you happy to go your own way in that instance? Should young kids have to wear them?
It’s more the fact that masks have come to represent the two intransigent sides in the entire Covid debate: Do we do everything we can in our power to save lives during the pandemic, no matter what the effect on people’s lives? Or is it a fruitless task, costing more lives than it saves, should we just get on with our lives?
That is perhaps why the entire debate on masks has become so fraught and tense in recent days.
Normally, on this page, I am happy to take a stance on an issue and go for it. But this week, I found myself, if not crossing the divide, then at least having much sympathy for the ‘other’ side.
You see, I have never had a problem with wearing a mask in indoor environments; in shops, on public transport, and by older children in schools.
I don’t see the point in wearing them outdoors, but will happily wear one even then if it makes others around me feel safer.
I have taken a few trips to England of late, and been struck by how different public attitudes are there to wearing masks.
Whereas, here, it’s unusual to see someone not wearing a mask indoors in public; over there, it’s the people wearing masks who stand out like sore thumbs.
This could be taken as a reflection of our respective leaders: Boris Johnson keen to emphasise a ‘life goes on’ approach based on individual freedoms, with Micheál Martin much more cautious and leaning towards safety first.
Or perhaps it’s a reflection on the community ethos of much of Ireland, a sense of us all being in this together?
Either way, it’s clear masks have become a dividing line between us, albeit with the majority of us somewhere in the middle: Happy to wear a mask on occasion, but not really liking the stifling of personal freedom at the same time.
This middle ground was where I firmly belonged in the mask debate, until the Government’s announcement this week that children in third class and up would be required to wear face masks at school from the next day, and could be refused entry if they did not comply.
Like a lot of the Government’s messaging on Covid, not least in the sphere of education, this edict seemed rushed and ill-thought out. It was also heavy-handed, given that we were talking about children as young as nine here.
I have children across the school age spectrum, from six to 16, and although asking the older teenagers to wear masks at secondary schools was a bit of a no-brainer, asking our 11-year-old to wear one seemed a step too far.
Similarly with the vaccinations. We were fine being jabbed and having our teenagers jabbed, but, like many parents, we are not entirely sure about vaccinations for younger children - particularly as the protection may only last for a few months anyhow.
Like a lot of parents, my wife and I thought long and hard about the new directive on masks for third class pupils and up.
Although we decided to have our son wear one, I have every sympathy for parents who felt this would do them more harm than good, and decided against following the edict.W
I also have great sympathy for principals and teachers, who were thrown this curveball and told to catch it and run with it, against the better judgement of many of them.
I only hope this rather Draconian measure will not dilute the general message on masks: that, worn in the right place (and in the right way, with the nose covered... got that, middle-aged men?) they can and will stop some infections spreading, and save lives.
It’s important to stress that the debate about wearing a mask is not a new phenomenon by any stretch.
A story in the Examiner in February, 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic, headlined ‘FLU GERMS 6-FOOT RANGE’ stated: “The only real preventive is the gauze mask. It has been established that the range of the influenza germ in spreading infection is about six feet. Any person coughing or sneezing recklessly therefore may infect another within that range. The four layers of the gauze mask, however, are impermeable by the germ in this, its most deadly form.”
The year before, in 1919, Stars and Stripes, the official magazine of the U.S forces, reported that its troops had worn gauze masks over their mouths and nostrils on a voyage to Europe to fight in World War I, and of 28,988 men, only 145 developed flu, and of these just two died. Bearing in mind the Spanish flu targeted mainly young adults, this is a remarkable example of how masks can and do work in the correct settings.
Also in 1919, in Sydney, there were fines for people not wearing masks, while in March that year, a correspondent wrote to the Derry Journal to say all local people should be compelled to wear masks, the only question being should they buy their own, or should the town authorities supply them.
At the same time, UK newspapers spoke of a person with a mask being followed home by curious children in Tooting, and of two women being seen on the London Underground wearing them. So, masks were rare but not unheard of a century ago.
Interestingly, a writer in the Munster Express in January, 1970, touched on the issue thus.
“Mouth masks are worn in Japan. We were discussing this in the Munster Express offices recently as our staff is depleted over the flu, when the Editor remarked that he was surprised the medical authorities, both here and in Britain, did not adopt the Japanese method of preventing the spread, not alone of flu, but also of colds.
“The whole idea is the prevention of the spread of the virus. It is not voluntary either. The wearing of masks is compulsory and if one is found with an active cold and not wearing a mask, a court case results and a fine is imposed.
“It is strange, with all the billions that have been spent on research, such as putting a man on the moon, that comparatively little is done on this front.”