Wearing a face mask is fast becoming a public-spirited gesture and the mark of a good citizen. But how do you show trust when all you can see are someone’s eyes? 

Judging by the mood on the street – and the amount of shoppers wearing scarves as masks at the local supermarket – an increasing number of Kiwis are exploring DIY face masks and, happily, leaving the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) to healthcare professionals and the vulnerable whose lives may depend on it. 

While the Ministry of Health announced this week an independent review of the management of PPE during Covid-19, particularly issues regarding supply and distribution to healthcare workers in hospitals and the community, the public move to mask up is perhaps no surprise given the varied and shifting advice from around the world. 

In Japan it has long been considered part of polite society to wear a mask, not just to reduce the spread of germs in high-density cities like Tokyo, but also in an effort to tackle the effects of air pollution. In the face of Covid-19, the Japanese government supplied reusable cloth masks to every household. Indonesians have been ordered to wear face masks outside and commuters are not allowed on public transport without one. Vietnam implemented fines for those who don’t wear a mask.

Although their President may remain unconvinced, Americans have recently been advised by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) to use cloth face coverings while out and about, and the UK government’s scientific advisers meet on Tuesday to discuss the wearing of face masks in public. The Ministry of Health hasn’t updated its mask-wearing guidelines since March 27, which is perplexing as the country moves to Level 3.  

Such differing approaches beg the question: does wearing a cloth mask make a difference? The understanding is that you wear a fabric face covering not because it offers any real protection against Covid-19 – at least not at the same level as an N95 mask with its built-in filter – but because it’s a good way to prevent spreading anything that you may unwittingly be carrying.

A mask is certainly no substitute for washing your hands, keeping your distance or staying home when you feel ill, but it will help stop you touching your face, for instance, a key way that the virus is transmitted. For this reason, wearing a face mask is fast becoming a generous, public-spirited gesture and something that may well become the mark of a good citizen after the immediate danger of Covid-19 has passed. As World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy Dr David Nabarro recently suggested, the widespread use of masks will become “the norm”. 

In New Zealand, fashion designer Karen Walker has been creating anti-pollution masks in partnership with MEO for the past three years.

Now, fellow fashion and fabric designers are switching their production lines to create cloth masks over here, too.

Kiwi designer Annah Stretton has given over one of her fashion factories to face masks (if you’re after matching mittens, she supplies those, as well); fabric and interiors business Uren Barsal has put its cloth nous to good use with its new KindFace range of linen masks; eco-friendly suppliers, Munch have devised #thegoodfacemask that comes with an option on a DIY filter system.

Another initiative, Beyond the Mask, has also sprung up exploring a creative, sustainable take on the new protective accessory, involving thoughtful designs made from repurposed fabrics and embroidered with signature hearts. This home-grown enterprise is led by a group of women (a fashion designer, an art director, a literary agent and a writer) keen to see our current crisis as the starting point for a smarter, kinder, more collaborative way forward.

Beyond the Masq kicked off this week with a donation of mother and child-sized face masks, sewn by a group of volunteers, delivered to Te Whare Ahuru-Mowai Ki Tamaki Auckland Women’s Refuge. However, it’s what’s happening behind the production line at Beyond the Masq – raising social conscience, exploring sustainable initiatives and creating a like-minded community that will eventually begin a whole new conversation. For now, however, the focus is firmly on making and donating fabric face masks. 

So how do you engender trust or share some cheer when all you can see are someone’s eyes? Masked-up paediatric staff working in the UK now print-out A4 smiling self-portraits and attached them to their scrubs so kids feel less afraid and more connected to their carers.

When you can’t touch someone – no hongis, no handshakes – and when people can’t see you smile, what other non-verbal cues can you use? A tiny hand wave might be sweet for a child, but it won’t be the answer for every grown-up. A wink could be misconstrued but a gentle nod, borrowed from the Japanese bow, or a raised open palm could be the way forward. However, when we all recognise that wearing a mask is for the benefit of others, perhaps a smile with the eyes (a ‘smeyes’ as current parlance would have it) will be signal enough.

Samantha Greenway has worked as a journalist in the UK for the past 20 years writing for Vogue, The Express, The Telegraph and The Financial Times.

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