Unmasking COVID-19’s lighter side

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With all the distressing news swarming about the coronavirus, we could use some good old destressing. So, let us wear our heart on our sleeves and our masks on our faces.

The best way to defeat the coronavirus is with a united front. But till we do, laughter is our best medicine, and we should let Mr. Netto leave us in splits!

To me, a septuagenarian, appearances are quite deceptive nowadays with virtually everyone taking refuge behind a face mask. Often I feel as though I’m in a masquerade of sorts. Like many elders, I peer blankly at the masked faces around me, vaguely sensing that some are familiar; but, for the life of me, I just can’t recognise them. By covering one’s mouth and nose completely, a mask makes identification (and conversing) difficult. So, before accosting anyone, I prudently take in the person’s height, physical build, gait and specific mannerisms to correctly establish his identity — a strategy that usually works. I have found that few like to be mistaken for someone else, unless that someone happens to be a celebrity!

“Corona’s made us look like a band of masked outlaws!” observed a jocular elder who, like me, is 76 and has problems identifying people. I fully agree. By compelling us to mask our faces, the virulent virus has robbed us of our individuality, nay identity, and turned us into virtually ‘faceless’ humans, forced to lie low by an unseen but insidious foe. Besides muzzling one quite literally, a mask muffles one’s voice and often distorts it. Indeed mine sometimes renders my speech unintelligible; I’m told that I sound as if I’m gibbering!

Further, a mask effectively hides one’s facial expressions — one can’t figure out whether a person is smiling or simpering, grinning or grimacing, grumpy or glowering. Funnily enough, some people who otherwise look harmless often appear villainous when they don a mask, especially a black one. This look, I’ve noticed, is particularly pronounced if the person happens to be exceptionally beetle-browed, as a few of my friends are. Add to that a mask which all but hides one’s mug and all one gets to see is a couple of unfriendly-looking peepers! Besides, a mask effectively thwarts those who want to show off eye-catchers like a luxuriant moustache, a virile beard or extended sideburns. So much so that I’m tempted to shave off my own long-standing facial fungus!

Of course, our gallant doctors and frontline health-workers (God bless them!) do look unavoidably forbidding, attired as they are in thick-layered gowns and suffocating headgear, not to mention goggles, masks and face-shields. One can well empathise with them. They must feel uncomfortably hot and claustrophobic, encased in this cumbersome garb for hours on end. Incidentally, I have seen a few harassed mothers cleverly capitalise on TV images of these benevolent ‘bogeymen’ to scare their naughty kids into good behaviour!

My dentist was quite unrecognisable. Apart from his usual dental face mask, I had never seen him kitted out so outlandishly. He seemed to have ballooned out, looking more like a fully garbed astronaut, replete with protective headgear and face shield, about to set off on a space mission. Indeed, his sudden appearance scared a little kid, who was waiting for a tooth extraction, into near flight before his mother quickly reined him in!

Then, perhaps to my irreverent and myopic eyes, some sophisticated and snouted masks do seem to make the wearer look like a snorkeller or scuba-diver. In fact, but for their uniforms, the masked and armed security guards at banks (and even some of our cops for that matter) could easily pass for bandits! Appearances can be quite misleading to the shortsighted whose spectacles often get fogged by their masks, as mine do. Is there a way out? Maybe some enterprising person could patent a solution to this irritant and earn (besides a tidy sum) the gratitude of bespectacled mask-wearers.

To my delight, I have discovered that a mask can also double as a slingshot of sorts when the elastic loops are slipped round two fingers, opening up possibilities for the mischief-minded boy in me. Using a balled paper missile, it’s ideal for jolting awake our constantly napping cat! However, I find that prolonged use of a mask can make one’s ears rather flexible and even floppy like the flappers of a jumbo, what with the elastic loops constantly tugging them forward, besides leaving them sore from constant chafing! And, as most of us know, standing masked in a queue for hours on end, especially in humid weather, can send one’s sweat glands into overdrive.

Last month I came across a masked man walking a dog that seemed to be muzzled. A closer look revealed that it was wearing a mask too — he was obviously taking no chances with his pet’s safety. Yesterday I saw an Internet image of a man flaunting a custom-made gold mask — was it a morbid gimmick aimed at self-advertising his affluence? Equally eye-catching was this telltale message inscribed on a wearer’s mask: “If you can read this, you’re too close!” And, of course, one sees a bewildering variety of masks that are as fashionable as they are utilitarian — creatively made from bandannas, mufflers, scarfs, cravats, hankies et al. In fact, given the resurgence of the pandemic, I wouldn’t be surprised if a face mask becomes a vital part of a bride and groom’s ensemble — to be removed only for the all-important wedding photo. Certainly, no couple wants to look as if they’re taking part in a masquerade or Halloween party on their wedding day!

The other day I noticed an unusually silent political rally coming down the road, with the participants uniformly wearing black bands only across their mouths. Shouldn’t they be covering their noses too, I asked a companion. Their mouths alone were ‘muzzled’, he explained, to protest against the alleged stifling of the freedom of expression! If their sniffers were left uncovered, he added jocosely, it was only because nobody had tampered with their freedom to sniff what they wanted! However, I just couldn’t believe that people could be ‘silenced’ in politically hyperconscious Kerala where protests flare up at the drop of a hat or, rather, the hiking of a ‘veshti’ or ‘mundu’!

By the way, here’s perhaps the latest COVID-19 spoonerism. During an online class a teacher asks her standard IV pupils, “Can anyone give me the adjective for ‘carnivore’?” With ‘carnivorous’ in mind, a boy promptly pipes up, “Coronavirus!”

Cartoonists, of course, do keep us amused (and sometimes in splits) with their droll take on COVID-19. By far, the best Corona-related cartoon I’ve come across recently shows a crestfallen father unmasking a kid he has just brought home from school and exclaiming to his wife in utter consternation, “I hate these primary school face masks — I’ve brought home the wrong child again!”

The Indian Premier League, too, has sparked some rib-tickling cartoons, highlighting the fact that we are more obsessed with cricket than COVID-19. One shows people rejoicing as a Coronavirus particle asks another, “Have they found a vaccine?” Pat comes the reply, “No. They’ve found their insane love for cricket again!” In another cartoon, a husband announces jubilantly, “The wait is over!” “For a vaccine?” asks his wife anxiously. “No, for cricket!” he answers gleefully, switching on the TV.

All in all, somehow a masked countenance does look a trifle uninviting — a far cry indeed from an uncovered one. Yet the face mask (coupled with meticulous hand-washing and physical distancing) remains our most effective defence against the killer virus. Hopefully, as most optimists believe, this too will pass. And sooner rather than later, we will ride out the Corona crisis and unmask our grins, both toothy and toothless, once again!

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