A medical worker in Shanghai hospital, April 2020. Photo credit: atiger / Shutterstock.com

It is startling to see the ways in which medical masks have taken on a multiplicity of meanings: They were initially objects of confusion (to wear, or not to wear?), they have been in short supply — and now, in many states, citizens by law must wear them in public.

The study of everyday objects that suddenly take on a surfeit of meaning constitutes an important way in which to understand the consequences of catastrophic events and our collective reactions to them.

COVID-19 certainly is a catastrophic event — and masks have loomed large in current events.

Surgical masks are believed to have been first used in the late 1800s for the purpose of protecting patients after it was realized that in the course of breathing, we exhale droplets laced with bacteria and other pathogens. At the time, tuberculosis and scarlet fever were of particular concern.

The first recorded use of masks in a surgical context came after doctors and nurses from Germany, the United States, and the United Kingdom separately confirmed that masks guarded against infection. By 1920, their use was widespread. In the medical profession, masks became a badge of professionalization.

In the early twentieth century, the wider public in China began to wear face masks to prevent the transmission of pathogens. In recent decades, the mask has become ubiquitous in many parts of Asia, appearing whenever air pollution or a pandemic became a public concern.

The wearing of medical masks in public communicates a sense of personal responsibility and, in some contexts, solidarity.

In acting as a barrier between self and other, masks have the potential to produce new kinds of interactions. Robbers wear masks — and so do protesters demanding more democracy in places like Hong Kong. Religiously observant Muslim women wear a kind of mask in public — and the very idea of masking one’s face for religious reasons has produced a backlash in various European countries.

Medical masks themselves come in different grades. The kind of lightweight masks used by many surgeons are designed to keeps germs inside — so as to not infect vulnerable patients. The N95 mask, which is designed to keep pathogens out, is used by some physicians treating patients with viral diseases, but also by some chemists in the course of working with dangerous chemicals.

The N95 mask represents an almost perfect physical barrier against foreign and harmful agents that do not respect borders — both territorial and physical. As such, it’s a symbol that reminds me of how some people talk about controlling microbial disease in ways that map onto and mirror how they talk about refugee flows. Under the current circumstances, it’s all too easy to slip into a demagogic utilization of immigrants as scapegoats for the pandemic.

Mask-wearing under a viral pandemic must also be examined in terms of how it transfers responsibility for maintaining “good health” from the state to individuals. In the context of COVID-19, what is also needed is a health system that is well-funded and sufficiently equipped to treat, test, and support vulnerable populations. Decades of cost-cutting, austerity, and privatization have made this a vanishing prospect in most countries. Moreover, it will necessitate that we contend with the contradictions of capitalist expansion in which the impetus to grow, encroach, travel, and consume runs up against material realities, inclusive of pandemics and climate change, realities that throw the entire viability of capitalist life into question.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention some of the more artistic, aesthetic, and activist enactments of medical masks and mask-wearing. First is the rise of designer masks as a site of distinction and aesthetic communication. While many fashion houses have turned their production lines to producing masks for hospital staff, a few have tried to profit by selling printed masks at exorbitant prices.

It should be noted, however, that designer face masks are not a new phenomenon: Particularly in cities like Beijing, a subsection of the wealthy and fashion-forward wear them as functional fashion accessories. They also made an appearance at London Fashion Week in February. As such, it is important to underline how fashion — and the consumption of fashion (inclusive of face masks) — works as a site of meaning-making and a means by which to communicate a sense of individuality, personhood, creativity, and subjectivity.

Taken together, each of these iterations of the medical mask — a signifier of solidarity, a technology of control, a tool of protest, and a fashion accessory — tells us a significant amount about the power of objects and how our interaction with them is illustrative of changing ideas, values, behaviors, and norms.

I would hope that it is the enactments of care and a more capacious understanding of health, coupled with agitation and protest, that become what medical masks mean to most of us, going forward.

Dr. Tina Sikka is a lecturer in media and culture at Newcastle University, and author of Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of the Vulnerable (Springer Press).