Who was that masked man?

Masks are an abiding human fascination, offering the possibility of transformation, anonymity, aggression, or protection. Or, in the case of the current swine flu outbreak, something more akin to pseudo-protection. The government-issued surgical masks in Mexico City make going out in public without as much fear possible, but perhaps at the cost of easier communication. I once asked a surgeon friend of mine whether he thought communication might work better in the OR if the medical team wore transparent surgical masks. He said he didn’t think so—though I couldn’t see his face at the time, so who knows?

I can tell you from my experience in Beijing that having an entire city of masked people is devastating to the social fabric. It is hard to have conversation through a mask—you can’t see smiles or frowns. Also, not all masks are equal. A good mask, well fitted and worn properly, is uncomfortable and hard to breathe through. And wearing a mask casually draped over your ears is more of a totem against disease than a scientifically valid form of protection.

from “Swine Flu – First, Sow No Panic,” by Elizabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times, 2 May 2009

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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