On Masks

Physicians in 17th-century Europe who cared for plague victims wore a mask with a long, bird-like beak that now has a menacing implication. The reason behind the beaked plague mask was to protect the doctor from miasma: before knowledge of germs, physicians believed that the plague spread through poisoned air. Sweet and pungent perfumes were thought to fumigate plague-stricken areas. Plague doctors filled masks with theriac, a compound of 55 plus herbs and other components like myrrh and honey. The beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be immersed by the protective herbs before it hit the doctor’s nostrils and lungs.[1]

“Wear a mask.” In 2020, this was a really loaded declaration (and will likely continue to be in 2021 and beyond). As The Washington Post reported in July of that year[2], “at the heart of the dismal U.S. coronavirus response” is a “fraught relationship with masks” as well as “faulty guidance from health authorities, a cultural aversion to masks and a deeply polarized politics have all contributed.” National Geographic noted that humans are experts at interpreting faces and generally use the whole face to interpret emotion which is why wearing masks for health and safety can present some social and cultural obstacles.

Widespread use of masks is critical not just for health reasons but also for social ones. According to researcher Mitsutoshi Horii, when only sick or vulnerable people wear masks, it singles them out, making them targets for fear and stigma. By fostering a culture of mask-wearing, people are showing solidarity with each other and cooperating to ease the strain on their fellow humans. [3]

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[1] Blakemore, Erin. “Why Plague Doctors Wore Those Strange Beaked Masks.” National Geographic, 31 Mar. 2020, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/european-history/plague-doctors-beaked-masks-coronavirus/.

[2] Witte, Griff Witte, et al. “At the Heart of Dismal U.S. Coronavirus Response, a Fraught Relationship with Masks.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-the-heart-of-dismal-us-coronavirus-response-a-fraught-relationship-with-masks/2020/07/28/f47eccd0-cde4-11ea-bc6a-6841b28d9093_story.html.

[3] Witte, Griff Witte, et al. “At the Heart of Dismal U.S. Coronavirus Response, a Fraught Relationship with Masks.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-the-heart-of-dismal-us-coronavirus-response-a-fraught-relationship-with-masks/2020/07/28/f47eccd0-cde4-11ea-bc6a-6841b28d9093_story.html.

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