The Face Shall Be Set Free

As people are “tired”, masks will soon no longer be required in many indoor settings. Would we really be liberated, and from what?

MRT commuter among many with mask partially-off on the evening after the prime minister announced that face coverings would soon not be required indoors

By Ray Zhang

It was news many were waiting for. Like the rest of you, I saw PM Lee Hsien Loong make that announcement during his televised National Day Rally (NDR) speech early this evening (on MeWatch for me). Before Mr Lee concluded his address, I was receiving text messages from friends, expressing such immense joy at the “best news this year”, as one of them wrote. Mr Lee had just said that “…outdoors or indoors, masks will be optional”. It was amazing how so many people regarded (and still do) the wearing of masks with such disdain—even abhorrence—that jubilation was immediately palpable when the end of its use (in many public places, but not all) was announced to be near (the actual date isn’t made known yet). Mask on would be a thing of the past even when COVID would not. The two would very soon no longer be synonymous.

Rules pertaining to mask wearing outside our homes will be further relaxed, according to Mr Lee, to “prevent people from getting tired”. It is not certain if he meant physically fatigued or tired from wearing masks, even exasperated or weary, or just plain bored. It is amazing to me that even after more than two years of mask-wearing, we are unable to accept it as part of, say, our turn out. And that there are so many who would find all manner of excuses to not wear one, or wear them improperly, even if, as a result, unattractively. This evening, on my way home from dinner with friends, I saw and was amazed by the many commuters on the MRT train who wore their mask at half-mast, ready for total abandonment, even when the wearing of one would still be required in all public transport. A swift and affirmative reaction to the good news, I suppose.

Will this be a common sight soon?

Unlike most of my friends, Mr Lee’s much appreciated and lauded announcement brought me no instant joy. My first reaction was that I would continue to wear the mask when I am out and about, whether indoors or not. Would I then quickly be among the odd, to-be-mocked few? The thing is I do believe the mask has largely served me well. My family and I have avoided the virus since it arrived on our shores in January 2020. Even when minister of health Ong Yee Kung said last October that “sooner or later, every one of us will meet the virus”, I did not make it sooner nor a close encounter. Pre-COVID, I would not even want to meet good ’ol influenza. Why would Omicron and its variants and those before them be welcomed now? I am happy not to have any COVID stories to share, or to affirm how “mild” the symptoms were (even “disappointingly uneventful”, as a friend described her infection). I am repeatedly reminded, “you know you are in the minority”, and I am okay with that.

Last night, I attended a cousin’s wedding, a relatively small affair as it was organised and booked before large gatherings were allowed. Although there were repeated announcements throughout the unusually churchy evening that masks “must” be worn when not eating or drinking, very, very few bothered with the reminder (which by then should have been redundant). I looked across the ballroom of about 15 full tables, and counted only three guests (including I) who had a mask on when not ingesting or imbibing. A relative, seemingly uncomfortable with my steadfastness, said to me, “take off your mask, lah. Why? Scared to die, ah?” I did not think he deserved an answer and turned away to look at the just-wedded couple enjoying their fake shark’s fin soup, happy that my mask—four-ply, in a “misty blue”, picked to match my attire—was exactly where it belonged.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

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