An elegy for masks and why mine stays on

Tom Tanuki on why he’s keeping the mask on as COVID retreats.

THIS WEEK I passed a television that breathlessly reported the removal of the last bastion of visual impairment from the pandemic era: no more masks on public transport. Masks on! Turned out to be a big fanfare about it. When I walked past that television screen in public, I had my mask on. I guess, to be honest, I’m not really interested in this particular memo. I’ve gotten a little haphazard with wearing my mask now and then, I admit, but in general, to quote my conspiracy friends, I won’t obey.

Now that we’ve given up on the thing we’ve always been so damn wrong, I look back at how badly we struggled with the issue of masks in Australia.

I lived in Japan for a while in the 2000s. In winter, their trains are full of people wearing masks. A Japanese friend explained the logic to me at the time: “They usually wear them because they’re sick, or maybe they are. They don’t want to infect everyone.”

That seemed intuitive enough. I was lucky enough to learn about masks in a culture that understood them and in a time that wasn’t generally panicky and scary.

I feel sorry for anyone who first started thinking about masks in March 2020, because we had a lot on our plate to say the least. We also learned about a global pandemic. The temporary closure of all trade, travel and traffic. “Flattening the Curve”. Intubation. workman. job seeker. covid toe. Tiger king. Cats and tigers contracting COVID. And meanwhile, a pervasive sense of death’s inexorable march toward our door.

For many people, the loudest reached them first: foghorns wailing about how masks are a communist tool to satisfy, or how they put CO2 in you! That sort of thing is folk wisdom: As in, it’s mostly bullshit, but it just feels scary enough to worry about anyway. These exciting, scary lies about masks spread faster than ordinary information.

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In any case, the Australian conversation about masks never went beyond how much magical protection they would provide me. Just me, personally. We didn’t really want to imagine being the sick one and doing everyone a good job by wearing a mask. Never us. It’s that other guy. I have always taken this as a sign that we are more culturally selfish. I’m a pessimist about the state of Australians, to be honest.

More reason for pessimism: we became a sickening snitch culture due to COVID. People would take up media of people not wearing masks in public situations, berating them at the time, or simply uploading images of their faces to shame them. Anti-masks followed the same strategy as the mandates waned. I still see conspirators uploading images of a poor mug in a mall wearing a mask. They are “sheep”. They still want to “comply”. Everyone dobs each other to settle a score with their alleged political opponents. That is my lasting memory of Australians during the pandemic.

I went to an anti-lockdown rally in 2020 to capture all the funny characters. I was questioned a lot about my facial tissue. A lady asked me what the hell I was doing there with a mask on. I told her: “I am a political activist. I want to prevent the cameras from identifying me. Masks do that. The government can’t identify your face so easily if you’re wearing a mask.” A light bulb moment changed her facial expression. (I bet a solid month of Telegram junk conspiracy healed her from her brief reveal moment.)

The idea that I have to explain to would-be activists that masks help you hide from cameras is a kind of COVID-era brain rot. I come from an earlier generation of activists. I remember the 2016 Coburg meeting, where anti-fascists fought in the streets with ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. The tabloid press cried indignantly: “If you wear a mask, you are a coward! If you really believed what you’re saying, you’d show your face.” More folk wisdom.

No one at News Corp told people that anti-fascists also wear masks to protect themselves from being doxxed and stalked by insane Nazis. But it was more useful to get people to believe this folk wisdom, because it whetted people’s appetites for what VicPol did next: ban face masks. Many of us campaigned against that at the time; we were terrified of the impact it would have on activists on the ground.

Now we are in an ever-consolidating era of surveillance capitalism. An era of masks suddenly normalized seemed like the rarest blessing to the activist in me. Suddenly I’m allowed to wear masks in public and reduce the scrutiny of passing cameras, political opponents and more? What, I can just get through my day in 2022 with an optional bit of privacy offered to me? What a gift!

There was almost – almost – a time when the anti-lockdown movement could have had this realization. They used to have an anti-5G faction, which declined over time. That faction became trapped in a rabbit hole of organite crystals and EMF radiation detectors, but buried somewhere in the conspiracies was a legitimate concern about functional 5G networks: the potential for a significantly strengthened state surveillance apparatus.

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In a 2020 talk for my now-dormant political podcast, I spoke until Dr Kaz Ross about a shopping mall in China where a 5G promotional display showed shoppers their own ID on a large screen while entering their name, date of birth and basic information. That’s a terrifying threat to me. All it takes is for state-mandated surveillance power to match the technology on offer, as is the case in China.

But this never occurred to the “anti-government”, “non-compliant” anti-lockdown movement. Instead, they made a holy cow of refusing the one item that could have helped many of them escape charges and additional police investigation. I have spoken before of useful things of folk wisdom that prepare the sheep to lead themselves to the slaughter. The obsession with masks was as useful as folk wisdom can get. It was arguably the dumbest decision of that movement, and they really did do a lot of stupid things.

Now everyone takes off their mask. They are exhaustive, perhaps the last chance they will ever have to defend themselves moderately against the surveillance capitalist panopticon. We rarely act in our own interest.

I don’t take mine off anytime soon. It’s a handy piece of cloth to wear when so many of you are sick. And I myself could be sick, so I think I’m doing you a tough job. But I don’t do it either because I don’t know who’s watching me. I like privacy. Celebrate “end of the pandemic” as you wish, but if you expose yourself against your own interests – which you are – then you celebrate without me.

Tom Tanuki is a writer, satirist and anti-fascist activist. Tom makes weekly videos on YouTube commenting on Australia’s political fringe. You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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