Back in World War II, women stepped out of assigned gender roles to work in munitions factories or as fitters with fighter squadrons, and volunteered for civil defence. Today, as a war of a different kind — one long rearguard action — is being waged on COVID-19, the minister for women and child development is stitching masks. So are a million other women, whose inspirational pictures are being posted on social media as proof of commitment to the war effort. And at least one BJP leader in West Bengal is generating admiration and irritation in equal volumes by putting his election symbol where his mouth is — on his mask.
The dreary sameness of the months in lockdown has been matched only by the dreariness of mass-produced masks. But don’t worry, because the fashion industry has scented money and moved in for the kill. The world is learning to do with fewer shirts, but it is bound to buy more and more masks. And while a personal protection suit will look like a plastic bag no matter what, masks can be as interesting as the faces they conceal. In China, an enterprising entrepreneur is making masks in shantung silk. In the UK, masks are being sold for three figures — in sterling. And fashion labels like Chanel and Gucci are very visible on masks displayed on online storefronts. Of course, it is impossible to tell how many of them are Chinese knockoffs.
The mask is an anonymiser, and could be playing havoc with the facial recognition software which had been causing so much concern. The mask is also a great leveller. Superheroes are losing their special status, and criminals are blending in with the crowd. When everyone is masked, both crimefighter and crook are Everyman.