One of our patients to a staff-member: I love you whomever you are.

And another: I went to Walmart with my wife the other day and came back home with another woman. I kind of like this masking!!!

It is a world gone mask-backwards. We have moved from fact to belief, reality to ideology. Perhaps, one may say that Covid is like the veritable Tao: it exists and it exists not, it has form and is formless, it is a hoax and is real. And one who knows its truth may not speak and one who speaks knows it not.

I am no longer incredulous at the profound mask-based discourse happening in our society. We have lost the ability to listen to each other and to give each other the benefit of the doubt. Fortunately, I no longer have to zip my mouth anymore when I can easily ‘zip the mask on’. “And one more thing,” as Steve Jobs would have said: it will not be so easy now to put my foot in my mouth.

Is it the world of social media and reality TV that has done this to us? We mouth off without caring for anyone else’s feelings or opinions or with the scantest respect for reality. Then, is it not appropriate that we are all forced now to slap masks on whether we like it or not?

I have maintained that Covid is only the symptom of a far deeper malaise. And the debate over masks illustrates my point. Now we even have masks are part of our haute couture, in all sorts of colors and designs. We have even painted our faces on the masks and perhaps the next step would be to body-paint masks on our faces.

“It is not the covid, stupid!” is perhaps what psephologists would say for the coming elections. The mask is our relationship with each other. Ordinarily, it would not be a problem if our communication with each other was healthy, if they did not cover the snarls underneath.

Bernard Shaw stated that the biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has happened. Now the illusion has been stripped and our mouths have been zipped. Whether we speak through clenched teeth or are just being cheeky, it is all being buried in the muffle. Whether we stifle others or ourselves is beside the point. “It’s better to keep your mask on and appear stupid than open it and remove all doubt,” as Mark Twain might have said.

As our infectious disease specialist says, it is perfectly ok to mask ourselves as long as we do not mask our symptoms. So, “Mask on, mask off.” There is nothing masculine about exposing others to your cooties, if you mask me.

It is the cornivorous, a sign says. Our language has shifted indelibly. And it has changed because of our lack of engagement, with ourselves and each other. We can no longer see each other’s smiles. Nor each other’s pain. All we can do now is look at the corner of each other’s eyes to attempt to look for subtle hints. The cheek by jowl togetherness has taken on another meaning. May we re-discover it again? 

My professor in ophthalmology used to insist that we practice the less invasive procedures on each other during our residency training. “That way,” he said, “you will understand what the patient really feels.” Boy! Was I glad he was not a proctologist!

With the mask on, I realized what my patients with emphysema feel. As I jumped stairs in my office, two at a time, I became extremely short of breath. At first I thought I was dying. I said to myself I have given it my best and I am ready for this covid. Then it dawned on me that it was the mask. It felt like I was constantly breathing through a straw. And when I began to eat, I realized to my embarrassment that almonds through the mask do not taste so good. Now I know the pain my patients feel. What I cursorily document in the note as someone else’s problem is my own. Only thing I can say is that we are being half-masked about it. This should not be an ideological battle.

I do not wish to split hairs over this but it reminds me of the doctor’s note which stated that the expired patient refused an autopsy. He must have dictated with his mask on. One of my friend cardiologists said ‘voltage criteria’ while interpreting an EKG. The muffled sound was transcribed as ‘old age criteria’. We are living in an age of our ‘accelerated grimace’, as Pound would have said, our masquerades reflected in a ‘broken bundle of mirrors’.

But I was left speechless when my 12 year old asked me, in the midst of covid,

“Dad, how is business at Access?”

“We are working hard, son.”

“Are your offices closed?”

“No, we are doing tele-medicine.”

“What do you do? Pick them up and ship them away?”

“Yes, that is what we do, my son! Pick them up and ship them away.” I realized that I did not have to hold back my smile any more. The mask concealed it all.

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