In the war between mankind and the coronavirus, I am on the side of mankind. That might seem like an obvious thing to say but I am not sure if all of mankind feels the same way. My neighbours twice removed, for example, insist on walking around without masks. How can they say in all honesty that they are fighting on the right side? Unlike in the past, there is no confusion here about which camp has right on its side.
And what of those who fill the bars, rush to the beaches or celebrate weddings with more people to the square foot than is safe? We know which side they are on whether they accept it or not. We should all hang together lest we hang separately. But this is a realization that has not dawned on them yet. We go to war unprotected.
Wearing a mask is not a gesture of selfishness, quite the reverse. I wear it so you don’t get infected, and vice versa. Altruism is forced upon us because we are all in it together. If you don’t take your diabetes medicine, it doesn’t affect me; if I don’t take a cough syrup, it doesn’t affect you. But if either of us doesn’t wear a mask, it could affect us both.
Not wearing a mask is not macho; washing hands or maintaining social distancing is not a sign of weakness. Our continued existence depends on these simple acts, not on clapping from balconies, lighting lamps or dropping flower petals from aircraft.
Somewhere between the panic of the man who ingests disinfectants and the smugness of the one who thinks this is all a huge conspiracy, is the ideal soldier. One who doesn’t believe that the best way to act during a pandemic is to do the opposite of what doctors recommend. In fact, some have had religious conversions, arguing that like god, the virus cannot be seen with the naked eye, and therefore god must exist. Logic is usually a casualty in such situations.
So too are statistics. We are bombarded with graphs and numbers, some of which make sense but coincidentally arrive at conclusions we want to hear. You might as well publish the batting averages of the Indian cricket team and conclude: “Therefore the virus is under control.”
The virus will be conquered by May 15, one official said in April, and we were shown graphs and figures, and there was talk about curves being flattened. Bureaucrats slip into jargon with all the enthusiasm of small boys who, having discovered the four-letter word, use it on every occasion.
A mask tells us more than a face, said Oscar Wilde, and he was right. It tells us that the wearer is fighting on our side, that he thinks we are on the same team.
Take off your mask and reveal yourself is old wisdom; the new one is, put on your mask and reveal yourself. In this war, you can’t mask the truth.
(Suresh Menon is Contributing Editor, The Hindu)