More than 3,500 years ago, the Chinese were using masks in healing ceremonies. African cultures have long utilized elaborate carved masks. As early as the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks began incorporating masks into theater productions — sad masks for tragedy, smiling masks for comedy or satire.
In Europe during the Renaissance, fashionable masks worn at balls and parties attended by nobility and royalty became de rigueur. The use of masks then spread to become a staple of theater and ballet productions.
Masks have also long been a trope in literature throughout the centuries. Think The Phantom of the Opera, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Mark of Zorro. And subsequently, of course, in film and television: Friday the 13th, Halloween, The Lone Ranger, Batman, Spider-Man, countless other Marvel characters, even Star Wars. Masks have been worn by villains and bandits and pirates — and by many a hero, usually working incognito to save mankind. Or Gotham City.
Now, masks are everywhere you look. We're all characters in a crappy new worldwide release called COVID-19: Revenge of the Super Virus. You can tell the heroes in this flick; they wear masks. Many of them work in hospitals. Others spend their days making sure the rest of us ordinary citizens can get food and medicine and mail — and their packages delivered. Others work in warehouses and factories, making and shipping our food and other essential goods. Others keep our streets and homes safe.
Most people are showing their support for the heroes by wearing masks — not just in sympathy, but in the knowledge that if more of us wear masks, fewer of us will get the plague, and the sooner all of us can show our faces again.
There aren't really many villains in this flick, but there are plenty of fools. Like Ohio Republican state Representative Nino Vitale, who says he won't wear a mask because he was made in God's image and it would be a sin to cover his visage, since, well, he looks like God. Other folks don't think we need to wear masks because they believe this whole COVID-19 thing is overblown, no worse than the flu. Time to get back to business.
And so we are doing just that, with many states, including Tennessee, allowing most businesses to open with restrictions. It's worth noting that most of these states are ignoring the guidelines President Trump himself issued that would indicate when they could safely reopen: 14 days of declining numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. That metric has only been achieved in a few states, including New York and New Jersey, where the pandemic was at its worst but now has been turned. Most states in the country are still seeing rises in case numbers and deaths.
No matter. The new plan appears to be to go back to the pre-COVID routine as soon as possible, to get people back to work and off unemployment, and to get the economy restarted. What is mostly left unsaid is that we're going to accept as the cost of doing business a prolonged excess of mortality among our citizens, particularly older Americans and those with underlying health conditions. Those deaths are simply the investment we're willing to make, and we're hoping for a robust ROI.
In the process, we're also creating more working-class heroes, whether they want to be one or not. Y'all mask up and get to work. Meemaw needs her Cracker Barrel. Daddy needs an oil change. Preacher needs his collection plate filled up.
I truly hope it works, but the prospects are not great. The only measures that have slowed the virus anywhere around the globe are staying home, social distancing, wearing masks, and massive testing. As of this writing, 70,000 Americans have died of COVID; the latest projections have 135,000 of us dying by August 1st. And we're easing restrictions.
The U.S. is the world's poster child for how not to handle a pandemic. We now have one-third of the world's cases — and that percentage is rising. Using the president's logic, Americans should be banned from international travel by most countries, since the U.S. is now the primary incubator/generator of coronavirus.
South Korea and the U.S. both had their first COVID death on the same day in February. South Korea has had 254 deaths in the 75 days since. That's because the S.K. government took aggressive and preemptive action, testing thousands of people a day early on and enforcing strict stay-at-home orders. Conversely, in February, the U.S. president denied it was a problem, said it would go away, said it was a hoax, said it was overblown, ignored the science. He was wrong on every count.
And I hope I'm wrong in thinking we're reopening the economy too soon, but many experts say we're risking a resurgence that could stretch this thing out for months, and could, at worst, provoke another round of closings and more economic distress. The American strategy goes against what every other country in the world has done that has managed to get COVID under control. But maybe we'll get lucky. I truly hope so. I'm ready for a print Flyer every week — and a margarita with friends on a crowded patio. And hanging with my family. And visiting my mother in her assisted living facility. Can't happen soon enough.
Meanwhile, I've got a great collection of masks — paper ones for quick trips to the gas station; a nice African-cloth model for Walgreens and the grocery store; and a snazzy black number with a ventilator for formal occasions. I hope someday soon they'll just be souvenirs of this horrible time.
But I'm not holding my breath. Just covering it for a while longer.