BETWEEN the rows of fruit trees in an empty garden nursery, a blue surgical mask lay trampled in the mud. Like the serpent in Eden, it was a reminder in an otherwise idyllic environment, of the evil lurking outside the gates, and possibly inside as well.

Normally I pick up litter. Not today. The mask might have lain there for weeks, but it felt better to leave it for someone with rubber gloves to deal with. In the coming months, I suspect paper masks will become the new crisp packet or plastic water bottle, the leading litter offender of our times. Artists are doubtless already photographing bandit-style objects dangling from trees or trapped in drains, compiling a photo-montage of Covid detritus, to look back on in years to come.

Now that face coverings are obligatory on public transport, and recommended in smaller shops and confined spaces, the day is coming when most of us will carry some form of protective gear in our pocket. This is meant to make us, and others, safer, yet the sight of bus passengers earlier this week, hidden from chin to eye, was anything but reassuring. It reminded me of cattle trucks, where all you can see between the slats are the animals’ eyes, rolling in fear as they head for the abattoir.

Some of my friends have been covering up for months; others would rather head for the hills and ride out the storm like outlaws than comply. But like it or not, I suspect this latest accessory will be with us for the foreseeable future. The days when we used to stare in bemusement at Oriental tourists wearing what looked like B&Q dust protectors are long gone. In some places, especially cities, it seems face coverings are already de rigueur, so much so that fashion houses are producing their own lines, to complement their designer range. This could either be seen as a definition of sad, or defiantly life-affirming.

How did it come to this? In a text exchange with a friend, we were comparing styles, and recommending ones we liked, when a shudder went through both of us. Who ever thought we would be having this dialogue? It was a sobering moment, stark proof of how altered the world has become in a matter of months.

The fabric visors I have on order are as non-medical as it gets, short of the Venice carnival. If Laura Ashley were still in business, I could have lurked unnoticed among the rails in one of these for days. Perhaps wisely, my husband has opted instead for the Ned Kelly look. With a hill-walking snood pulled up over his nose he looks dastardly, and warm. With the hottest days of the year approaching, wearers will be severely tested. It is no joke. On overheated buses, tubes and trains – often tropical even in winter – being cocooned behind cloth, wool or paper will raise temperatures to simmering point. Tempers might follow. This is no time, certainly, for the menopausal. It will be interesting to see what happens if anyone finds it so unbearable a prospect that they dare to go bare-faced.

So far the enforcement of lockdown measures has been largely consensual, the police working amicably to ensure people’s safety. But if any passengers revolt or feel unwell when under wraps, who will handle that situation? It’s simple enough to prevent refusniks getting on at the bus stop, but thereafter the driver cannot be expected to enforce the law. Will there be a member of transport police on every service or at every station, or a rapid response squad within hailing distance?

What about those who suffer from asthma or other respiratory complaints that mean they cannot trap their noses and mouths? Confronting public anger or filthy stares as they appear to flout the rules will be bad enough; but how do they convince officials that their condition is genuine? The mere prospect of having to prove their credentials, or to run a gauntlet of jibes and stares, will deter many from even attempting to hop on public transport.

Of course we will eventually get used to swaddling ourselves, just as we’re now programmed to reach for soap after every foray beyond the front door, and to keep a cow’s distance from neighbours. Yet the potential hazards of facial wraps are fiercely debated. The main concern is that people will feel a false sense of security behind their personal protective barrier and neglect to wash their hands. Nor, I’ve read, is cloth very effective at preventing the passage of small contagious droplets. When you add to this the likelihood that the discomfort of prolonged use leads to constant tweaking and touching, it seems their health benefits might be less assured than we’ve been encouraged to believe.

All of this suggests the psychological significance might be as important as the medical purpose. Seeing a sea of veiled faces around you reinforces the message of pervasive threat. Visors, in whatever shape, are a visible reminder that each and every one of us presents a potential risk to others. They are symbols of our collective duty to be seen to be taking precautions; by wearing them, we signal willingness to help lower anxiety and alarm, and to play our part in the communal effort to defeat this disease.

Will we ever feel relaxed under these circumstances? I can cope with the prospect of covering up while heading off on holiday; but once at my destination, how easygoing will a cafe or gallery, beach or bar feel when you can only see waiters’ and bartenders’ eyes, and art lovers or bookshop browsers look like the cast in Holby City? Holidays are about escaping the everyday, and switching off. Learning to do that now will require mentally airbrushing out the red flags in the scene before us, be it perspex screens, the distance between tables, or a proliferation of nosebags. It’s not impossible, but it will be quite a feat.

To get into training, I’ve written this column while wearing a paper mask. It’s not a flattering sight. With every breath the screen has come in and out of focus as my glasses fog up. That is not good either. On the bright side, however, the contact lens industry looks set to take off.

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