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COVID-19 and Masked Mankind

By Ambassador T P SREENIVASAN
June 14, 2020 11:25 IST
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COVID-19 has accomplished what the UN failed to do in the last 75 years by making mankind rally around a mask of unity, observes Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

The unique blessing that distinguishes mankind from the rest of the animal kingdom, the ability to smile, disappeared behind masks overnight.

It may be an ordinary cloth mask or color coded designer masks, but the effect is the same.

Perhaps the only legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic that will stay with us will be the mask and the health checks just like special security checks at the airport were bequeathed to us by 9/11.

This is a pity as smiles are precious gifts that can be given away free with great benefit to the giver and the given alike.

'If you find someone without a smile, give him one!' is the greeting at the entrance of the Yangon airport in Myanmar.

An unconscious smile appeared on all lips as they entered, though the people of Myanmar are generally subdued in expressing their feelings.

 

In fact, every nation has its own style of greeting, but most common is the smile, which has many levels of warmth.

The most hearty smiles I have seen are in the South Pacific and it is hard to see a Fijian without a smile.

Even Sitiveni Rabuka, the Fijian colonel who walked into the country's parliament and marched out Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra and his colleagues at gun point to captivity and proclaimed himself the boss was seen sporting a broad smile, giving the coup a human face.

Australian women were so enchanted by his smile that some of them asked him to stage a coup in their backyard! The other soldiers, who accompanied him to the bloodless coup may also have been smiling, but they were masked to give themselves a grim look.

The Latin Americans and the Africans come next in keeping a cheerful face in public.

The Chinese and the Japanese keep poker faces and they smile only selectively.

Sinologists used to measure movement of the lips of Chinese leaders to gauge the warmth of the friendship.

Wearing a mask was common in Japan even when there was no epidemic as they rarely used their smiling talents to establish personal or official relationships.

Even in theatres, where it is necessary to willingly suspend disbelief to enjoy the show, there are people who consider modesty more important than enjoyment.

When a distinguished Japanese diplomat, wanted to criticise his own people, he wrote a book, Japan Unmasked, causing a 'shokku' an English word brought into the Japanese dictionary after 'Nixon Shokku'created by Nixon's visit to China.

In India, it is different from region to region.

In Kerala, public display of merriment is the monopoly of drunk merry makers.

In Punjab and Goa, newcomers will think that everybody is a bit inebriated.

The pandemic has now become a great equaliser, with the masks having hidden away the variety of smiles that had enthralled the world.

Masks have played a role in human history in many areas, including health, entertainment and crime.

Surgical masks are supposed to have been popularized, if not invented by 'The Lady with the Lamp', Florence Nightingale.

Most countries and cultures have developed their own masks, which have now become wall decorations.

Many of them served as part of stereotyping characters, revealing their nature even before they spoke.

They saved the efforts of the actors to contort their facial muscles to create expressions.

Kathakali, an ancient, but sophisticated dance form of Kerala is mistakenly characterised as a masked dance, but the fact is that even with all the embellishments around the face and the massive headgear, the eyes, facial muscles, lips and even the tongue come into play.

A masked Kathakali dancer will be a shadow of his former self.

In the Japanese Kabuki, the faces are so heavily painted to make them look like masks, but the facial expressions remain important in Kabuki.

After a long lull during the complete lockdown, crimes have multiplied in quantity and diversity in different parts of the country, particularly in Kerala.

In the pre-corona days, the accused, often highly respectable people before the crime was committed, used to cover their faces when accosted by cameramen, but today, they all have masks to protect their privacy.

This may well be an incentive to crime, particularly burglary.

An ingenious way has been found to save the smile in a studio, where they take a picture of the part of the face covered by the mask and print it on your mask, thus making you look like perpetually smiling.

If it looks really genuine, the wearer may end up in a mental asylum or a court for sexual harassment for smiling meaningfully at women.

As the mask industry prospers and more and more designers go into fashion mask, the fashion industry will suffer.

Who wants to see masked women parading clothes, even if the masks are made of gold and diamonds?

Except for the eyes, there is nothing more beautiful than the nose and the lips.

If they are covered, a beauty pageant may be a pain rather than a pleasure.

The lipstick industry and even the toothbrush and paste industry will dip in the bargain.

Poets will have to shift their attention from rosy lips and milky teeth to dreamy eyes and shapely eye brows, while describing the heroine.

Politicians will be the winners in the new norm of masked faces.

It has been a common practice to create an audience of Trumps and Modis by giving everybody a mask with the face of the popular leaders.

People, other than hard core supporters may have been reluctant to don those masks, but now, if you make it part of the mandatory masks, most people except intending defectors will be happy to appear like their leaders.

A blue mask, resembling a UN flag ,has been fluttering in social media.

On a closer look, it is actually a mask with the strings attached, declaring it the best symbol of globalisation.

COVID-19 has accomplished what the UN failed to do in the last 75 years by making mankind rally around a mask of unity.

Let us hope that it is a temporary phenomenon and we will be unmasked to bring back the smile and the masks will go to the walls as the souvenirs of a nightmare.


T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA.
Ambassador Sreenivasan is a frequent contributor to Rediff.com and his earlier columns can be read here.

Production: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com

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