You’d have to say that, with the benefit of hindsight, it does seem kind of obvious. The more we breathe on each other, the easier it is for nasty things to spread. I’m sure we knew this, didn’t we? Strange, then, that it took a pandemic and 127,000 deaths in the UK for us to do something about it. But here we are. Better late than never.
You will by now be familiar with the surprisingly simple solution, of course: that strip of fabric that hooks onto your ears and covers your nose and mouth. It is called a mask – and I see no reason why we shouldn’t all continue to wear one long after Covid-19 has buzzed off. Likewise, hand washing. I was amazed when people became evangelical about soap and water about a year ago. What had – or rather, what hadn’t – you been doing pre-Covid? Shudder.
But back to masks. Before you throw a tantrum and start whimpering about liberty, I am not suggesting we continue to wear them all the time. Just on public transport and in shops and, I don’t know, maybe when you go to the loo in a restaurant or pub.
The benefits of this very small imposition are obvious. Flu cases have been almost comically low this year. Data released in February by Public Health England showed that not a single flu case had been detected in the previous seven weeks. This seemed to confirm the findings of the Royal College of General Practitioners, published in August 2020, which stated that flu cases were well below the five-year average for the time of year.
Public Health England’s head of flu, Dr Vanessa Saliba, was pretty clear about the reasons for this: “The decrease in flu cases this year is likely due to changes in our behaviour, such as social distancing, face coverings and hand washing, as well as the reduction in international travel.”
Clearly we can’t permanently ban large gatherings and travel, but we should aim to mitigate risk where possible – and widespread wearing of masks would evidently help. It is already a habit to put a mask on in the supermarket or on the train; the worst part – getting used to it – has long passed. I mean, you don’t even have to change your behaviour. You just have to keep calm and carry on.
We know that wearing masks reduces cold and flu cases (not to mention Covid-19, which is likely to be around for some time yet), so it would take a particular kind of stubbornness – shall we call it selfishness? – to not join in. Wearing a mask in public – to protect yourself and others – is a totally normal part of life in many Asian countries. This is not some great leap into the unknown; it is a fractional turning of the dial with significant consequences.
Let’s take Covid out of the equation for a moment. Tedious (but hardly debilitating) illnesses like coughs and colds accounted for 27.2 per cent of sick days in 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics. That’s 141.4 million sick days. Not all of them could be eradicated by widespread mask wearing, but even a small reduction would have a tangible impact on the economy.
There will be those – there always are – who say this is an affront to their freedom of choice, their civil liberties; but as individuals we subscribe to all sorts of customs and etiquettes, in order to benefit the whole. Standing on the right of the escalator. Sneezing into a tissue. Using headphones. Whispering on the phone. Not dropping litter. All these tiny things contribute towards a happier, better functioning society. There is no reason why mask wearing should be any different.
There are other – let’s say, less medical – benefits to mask wearing. They provide an extra layer of defence from the person an inch from your face on the Northern line who hasn’t cleaned their teeth (see also: mask wearing in pub loos). They offer you a valid excuse not to speak to the colleague you bump into 16 stops from the office. “Sorry, no, can’t hear a thing through that mask, nightmare yeah, catch you in the canteen.” They hide all manner of facial wear and tear the morning after the night before.
Masks provide an extra layer of defence from the person an inch from your face on the Northern line who hasn’t cleaned their teeth
Facial hair, too. I strongly agree with author Chelsea Handler, who wrote on Twitter: “For me, personally, there should be a rule that even if you get vaccinated, you have to continue wearing a mask if you have a goatee.” And all these wins are packaged up in a bit of fabric, which you can fold away in your back pocket.
My bet is that, in years to come, we will look back in disbelief at the way we once breathed and snorted and coughed over each other, letting germs and bugs run riot. The memory might even make you smile to yourself on the Tube – and no one will ever have to know. Heaven.