Masks are O(n)FF


As things are, it seems that the worst phase of the coronavirus pandemic is behind us. The wide spectrum of restrictive measures that were limiting mobility and physical contacts is slowly being narrowed down. People are happy with the changes as well. We have been impatiently waiting for the crisis to pass and return to normal life.

The question is whether we actually go back to the way things were, after “the whole thing is over”? It seems that the answer is: not quite. When “the whole thing is over” we will remain masked in the street, with gloves on our hands. The best-case scenario is that we will continue carrying them in our bags and pockets, ready to use them on the need-to basis. When “the whole thing is over” we shall continue keeping a safe distance in the street and in the public transport; we will be sitting down in a café or a restaurant with a limited number of people and regular come-and-join-us-for-a-coffee scenarios will rarely occur. When “the whole thing is over” we will be forming orderly queues in front of supermarkets as if there is a shortage of food because the number of people buying groceries at the same time will be limited as well. It can be expected that some will disobey the restrictions, especially in the beginning; however, this will not entail their cancelation. It can only lead to stricter control over their adequate enforcement.  

There will be more of this, for sure. When “the whole thing is over”, a number of people who were lucky not to lose their job in the looming economic crisis caused by the pandemic, will be directed to work from home, most of whom will face end of each month with a gnawing fear that their employment can be cancelled at any point in time in the foreseeable future. This is probably why travel becomes cumbersome both in terms of finance and organization when “the whole thing is over”  and will stop being a pressing concern for many, as it will be easier to accept the reality of not being able to afford vacation for some time. 

Let’s try to imagine an ordinary day in the life of an average adult when “the whole thing is over”. Waking up, if he tries to keep his health in place, he will join one of many online platforms for fitness activities and workout. After breakfast, laptop is on, online meetings ensue, followed by work on different ongoing projects. Around lunchtime, the doorbell rings and contactless food delivery is at the doorstep. The food has already been paid in advance ons subscription basis to simplify the chore of having to daily choose a dish. A quick round of online gaming after the meal, followed by more work.

A few times a week our average adult will meet friends – a friend per day quota being in place. Mask is on, gloves as well and off he goes. It is great that they arranged to go to a café nearby, as it is not necessary to take public transport which is a hazardous undertaking in and of itself, despite the protective gear. The 200m walk is a relaxed one, easy-to-avoid-others stroll limiting any potential contact that would entail an unnecessary disinfection procedure, only further complicating a simple coffee date in the neighborhood.

A casual conversation with a friend, laced with occasional gossip is safe despite the normal voice levels, as the next table is quite a few meters away, with plexiglass partitions in place so chances of someone overhearing the chatter are slim. The coffee date will have to be cut short, as there is another work-related call scheduled for 7pm. Same place, same distance, same time next week?

He returns home, takes off his mask and gloves, sits down in front of his laptop and takes the call. Sometime later he grabs a beer from the fridge and joins a Zoom call to celebrate his friend’s birthday online. Everyone is dialing in from their apartments, the atmosphere is great, people are having fun. The friend really nailed it with organizing a band to play live (each band member separately joining the call), as the music is really awesome. The fun is on.

He is still in the good mood after the party is over, so he decides to sit down to catch-up with the last two episodes from the Netflix show he is watching. After the binge is done, he goes straight to bed and takes another 30min to read a cool story from Reddit. All in all, it was a great day.

Had I read the above story only a few months ago I would think of it as a dystopian synopsis for a movie or TV show. Today, this scenario is part of our reality. And its most prominent symbol is a mask.

Mask has become a necessity during the pandemic, in order to protect others and ourselves by limiting the spread of the virus. Despite the heat of the pandemic cooling off, the mask remained a necessary preventive piece of gear we needed to have with us at all times, as we’ll never know where and when the situation may arise to put it on.

The mask has become an essential, akin to our cell phone, as something we have at all times by our side. We cannot really imagine living our life without one or the other thing anymore. There is a reason for that, of course. The mask and the cell phone are very closely connected. They are connected by the real life we are experiencing today. Our real life is mostly virtual, and way less part of our reality.  

Thanks to IT, we are able to work remotely. Thanks to technology, we have way more friends in the virtual world, despite their location, as hanging out needs not to be physical anymore. Thanks to technology, shopping and having fun can be done from the comfort of your own room, and so on.

However, with the mask we must have by our side at all times things come into perspective. Masks are required whenever we are out in the real world. Whenever we are faced with physical contact with other people, protection needs to be in place and masks need to cover our faces. While being masked we all look so similar, right? It is hard to recognize friends, and the mask hides our identity which in turn makes us hide from others and vice versa. We see people as robots – and they see us the same way in return. All of this, while keeping the safe distance, avoiding any physical contact. 

It is when we return to our apartments and rooms, when we leave the real world and are alone, that masks fall off and we can show our true face. Who do we show it to? To anyone and everyone on the screen of any of our devices. The screen becomes the only place where we can show our face without a mask, see others without masks, see them as people and not masked robots. Being yourself is an option, but only within the confines of your room, surrounded by monitors instead of people. Mask sets us apart, while the screen brings us closer together.

That is the way in which our virtual world has become our real world. It is not because of the coronavirus. The pandemic only sped up the transition of our lives into virtual reality, making it our natural environment overnight.

Now we move a step further. Apple and Google have proudly announced that they are working together on developing an app that will warn people if they are approaching another individual infected with the coronavirus. These companies are not the only entities working on this. Isn’t that a brilliant idea? Imagine how easier it will become to stop the spread of the virus and ease the battle in the world war against the invisible COVID-19. 

Once this almighty app is developed, wouldn’t it make sense to improve it further, using it for other things as well? For example, to warn us of other symptoms a passerby may have. These should not be limited to medical information only; we can receive data and suggestions that may influence our decision to avoid or connect as we have a lot in common without even knowing the person. It almost becomes risky to leave to humans to decide on their own who to mingle with and connect or enter into a relationship. We always make mistakes and misjudge anyhow, right? Now a machine will have the capacity to choose in our stead. This will protect not only our health and wellbeing, but will allow us to become better, more satisfied and happier as individuals, as it becomes evident that we are incapable of doing that on our own.

Masks will separate us even further from the real world, while technology will make us more comfortable in virtual one. Once we start fully living in the latter, the masks will not be needed anymore. It is clear that we are on the right path, and that the future ahead is bright. 

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