TWO weeks before lockdown I spied a man at my local Tesco in full fatigues, and matching ninja face mask darting nervously along the aisles nudging items into his basket. I fumbled for my phone thinking he looked so strikingly out of place that a Twitter picture opportunity surely presented itself. I was too slow with the phone and I thought stalking him around the shop might increase, what I perceived as, his paranoia.

Instead, me and a couple of onlookers had a giggle about it. Cut to four bizarre months later and today masks become mandatory in shops in Scotland, newspaper headlines scream out “Not wearing a mask should be as taboo as drink-driving, say leading scientists”, face coverings have become designer fashion accessories and the humble mask has somehow even managed to become one of the most divisive political issues of our time. Wow.

This week Nobel Prize-winning biologist Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan said that everyone should wear a face-covering inside public spaces, and pointed to lamentable figures which showed only 25% of British people wearing masks compared to 83% in Italy in April. “If all of us wear one” he said “we protect each other and thereby ourselves, reducing transmission.”

He argued that a stronger, clearer message from government was needed to persuade a “sceptical” public about the benefits of face coverings. As if to prove his point, the very next day, launching his much-lauded meal voucher scheme, pin-up Chancellor Rishi Sunak beamed at me through the camera lens as he served two plates of steaming food to bewildered restaurant goers. He was all winning smiles and shiny hair but, notably, no mask.

In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to think of any UK cabinet ministers on recent photo opportunities who’ve sported a mask. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s donning of a tartan face mask in June, as well as bringing “a tsunami of sales” for the company which made it, finally sent a bold, public health message from the top about the efficacy of masks.

At the end of April the First Minister, in what was seen as the first divergence from UK Government policy, was advising us to wear them, just weeks after her own clinical director had said to BBC Radio Scotland: “People don’t wear them properly…they’re uncomfortable. Masks are not fun.” Whilst the FM was dishing out the advice here, in London professor Angela MacLean from SAGE told us that the effect of face coverings against the virus was “small”, whilst Matt Hancock insisted the Scottish Government’s advice was based on “weak science”.

By May 11, the UK Government had changed its mind and was advising the public to cover their faces in enclosed public spaces, and on June 15 face coverings became mandatory on public transport but not shops. Scenes from English pubs were largely devoid of mask-wearers.

What is it about a simple piece of cloth that is so difficult? OK, it does feel odd. When I wear my mask I feel self-conscious – instantly it feels like I’m the only one wearing one and everyone’s staring. Being from an immigrant background, I spent every waking hour of my childhood and adolescent years trying to fit in with my peers, and now, I feel I am actively ‘othering’ myself by practising something that’s not culturally acceptable here yet, but has been in parts of Asia.

It makes me feel panicky – my smile which ‘speaks’ to people as I pass them, is hidden, so how will they know I’m friendly. And lastly, and this is a weird one, I feel a bit mysterious, almost alluring, as my eyes become hyper expressive, like some sort of bad Bollywood actress. Sadly, this new-found sexiness is tempered by the fact the mask makes my glasses steam up, so 9 times out of 10 the moment ends with me bumping into a shelf or tripping over a freshly-sanitised basket. Whilst all these are minor inconveniences, I’m more than happy to take my chances with them rather than be responsible for passing coronavirus to a friend or my elderly next door neighbour.

What I don’t feel is that I don’t need it because I’m somehow immune as the virus hasn’t affected anyone I know, or that it is some sort of ploy by the nanny state to over-ride my civil liberties, as some people both here and in the United States believe. Reports of restaurant employees in Oklahoma being threatened and verbally abused by customers refusing to wear masks when asked, show how divisive the issue has become in America.

So, on the day face coverings become mandatory in shops here, if I’m at Tesco with my mask on (being all alluring) and I see the man in the mask and fatigues proudly sashaying down the aisles with that self-congratulatory look about him, I wont be laughing at him. I’ll probably shake his hand. Except, of course, I can’t.

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