Adapting to the Mask-wearing Normal

I hated wearing my mask, until I found out that’s the best way to adapt in this challenging environment.

Safe-Distancing Ambassadors in Singapore
Safe Distancing Ambassadors in Singapore. Photo by grainfalls on Unsplash

Up till recently, I would shun away from people wearing face covering in public (for non-religious reasons): They are emblematic of mystery and terror. Covering masks to me used to be the Twitter egg avatar in the Twitter-less era. Hiding in anonymity, people in masks have more chances to strike fear and create trouble to the community. Loan sharks wear masks. Terrorists wear masks. Even bank robbers, not excluding those fictional ones, wear masks too. (Yes I watched La Casa de Papel and I loved every. Single. Episode.)

More troublingly, we now live in the era when beauty is pretty much skin-deep. The cosmetic industry is a multi-million dollar industry with its ads penetrating every single facet of our life. People, of both genders, spent significant amount of their income to groom their faces. Judging ourselves, and others, according to how they look has become second nature to us.

Taken to a more extreme level, the industry is also changing who we are. Netflix is dotted with shows that glamourizes skin-deep beauty. Cosmetic industry has provided a refuge to those who wish to run away from who they really are by altering how they look like. Increasingly, we literally take things at face value. (badum tss)

So I do get why people do not wish to cover their faces in public.


Scrap that.

I don’t. I really don’t get it.

We are now waist-deep in the middle of the pandemic quicksand. The national tragedy in India sweeps countries in the entire region with rising cases, and each passing day brings more uncertainties into our future. Just like in the quicksand, the more we move about, the deeper we get into this mess. Epidemiologists agreed that wearing masks is our lifelines, aside from the vaccines that are currently being rolled out.

Yet I believe there is something bigger in people’s refusal to save the lower half of their faces from our sight. It is more than just the perceived look of mystery that a mask can give its wearer. It is more than just the feeling of discomfort; the limited freedom of expressing who we are and what we aspire to be and to look like. I think it has got to do with people’s ability to take in new information and adapt.

Adapting and overcoming challenges will always be key to our survival as a species. This was printed all over within our evolutionary history. People living in higher altitude has better lungs capacity due to the air that is thinner at these places. People in the tropics has more pigments in their skins that allow it to be more resistant against the ultraviolet rays of the sun.

Yet, humans are creatures of habit. What we are used to or comfortable doing might logically be at odds with the times, but it is very difficult to change those habits. Humans of younger age pick up thousands of new information everyday on their first few years, from walking to speech and cultural norms. However, even as we age in our formative years, we lose our ability to pick up new skills, as habits are formed and cultural norms are internalized.

So how do we make people more adaptive? I am proposing a few ways forward.

Firstly, we need to highlight the position of privilege we are in, in comparison with places that are currently affected by the pandemic. Singapore’s position of “low crime city” stand in stark contrast with big cities around the region like Jakarta, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. I had personal experience of losing my entire bag and important documents overseas — an experience that causes me to have little panic attack whenever I see people leaving their bags / laptops in local libraries for a lunch break.

National Library Building Singapore. Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash

We need to be on guard, at all times. Unfortunate things can happen to you if you are not careful, and worse still for the case of the pandemic, to the people around you as well.

Numbers talk, but big numbers rarely make sense to human brains. To highlight this enviable position we are in, we need to share the stories, albeit anecdotal ones, of people unable to see their relatives for the longest time due to isolation, of healthcare workers around the region being overworked to treat patients. Nobody enjoys being cared for in isolation; but it seems way too many people enjoy being oblivious to the tragic humanitarian crisis unfolding around the region.

Secondly, we need to start communicating risk factor better to the public. A few things I have in mind. One: We are one big community living in this small island. And therefore, the usage of terms “community” / “dormitory” to explain daily new cases in Singapore seem to imply that there are two separate systems of communities here, each living within their own bubble. With the current cases linked to the airport these days, it does not make sense to say “We are not in Changi Airport therefore we should be okay”.

Two: It does not make sense as well to say that we can relax the existing health and safety procedures because they are effective in reducing numbers of new cases. Instead, we need to understand it in the other way round: The low number of cases might be because of other things (for example, effective border controls and quarantine system).

The existing protocols that we have might have been broken all this while, but because of the low local cases, we have no way to prove its effectiveness. This rings painfully true in the case of disease transmission in a food court in Changi Airport Terminal 3. The existing law of gathering up to 8 people in public and allowing patrons to dine-in was not stress tested. Miscommunicating risk factors creates narratives that breed complacency among the community.

Humans are capable to understand new things. It is in our genes. We just need to work and think harder to adapt. Mask-wearing is freedom-restricting at best and suffocating at worst. It requires a lot of effort and will power. But I believe we are better than our worst instinct. Wear your masks.

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