In Week 8 of the semester, I pass out surgical masks to my students. The mask as object lesson. We wear them as an experiment for the first five minutes of class, entering into the epidemic of our imagination. How does it feel? I ask. Hot, they offer. Uncomfortable. Awkward. This sucks, someone says; my glasses are fogging up. They giggle, fiddle with the elastic straps.
I teach a class on the history of epidemics in the United States. I always teach it in the fall semester, aligning the syllabus with the season of plagues. In early September, for instance, when the air is still thick with humidity, we study the yellow fever epidemic that literally decimated Philadelphia in the summer of 1793, killing 10% of the capital’s residents in a matter of months. The epidemic abated in November, though no one knew why. We do, of course: frosts had set in, and the mosquitoes had died.
When we get to the influenza pandemic of 1918, it’s mid-October and pumpkins adorn porches. Our rural Northeast Ohio campus is blanketed in brown and gold leaves, as it always is—as it would have been then, when campus shut down and one of the administration buildings was converted into an infirmary for students who had fallen suddenly, seriously ill.
I gloss the timeline for my students, clicking through PowerPoint slides while beads of sweat collect on my cheeks. In August, an outbreak began in Boston—first among sailors stationed at Commonwealth Pier, then among civilians. Within weeks, cases had been reported on both coasts. Local governments issued bans on public gatherings; churches, schools, and theaters closed. Some cities instated mask orders, and people peered at one another from behind oblongs of gauze.
What must that have been like, we wonder.
Wearing the masks is supposed to be a way breathe our way into history: to not merely imagine the feeling of an epidemic, but to somaticize it. It is one thing to look at black and white photographs of masked Americans; it is another to be confronted with the oppression of your own breath.
Of course, when I ask how it feels, I do not only mean physically. Beyond their itching noses and fogging glasses, I want them to consider the psychological discomfort that comes from wearing masks in ordinary, non-clinical contexts. Classrooms, for instance. How does it feel, I prod, to be looking at one another right now?
Creepy, they agree, their voices muffled by woven polypropylene. You can’t see anybody’s facial expression. It’s sort of…unnerving.
This is the ironic phenomenology of the face mask: a measure intended for mutual protection paradoxically manufactures an atmosphere of anxiety and dread. Maybe it’s the way that the visible signifier of the mask reminds us of the invisibility—and the omnipresent potentiality—of infectious agents. Maybe it’s the way that it re-signifies our bodies as objects of suspicion. Maybe, as my students suggest, it’s that we’re rendered alien to one another, vaguely menacing in our illegibility.
They take their masks away from class as mementos. I offer extra credit if they wear them for at least 30 minutes in a public setting and write a reflection on the experience. Later, they send me selfies from the dining hall and football field. They got a lot of strange looks, they tell me. Of course they did. It is 2018 and this is all a simulation, a fantasy of crisis, a gesture toward a reality we are not yet inhabiting. The mask as augury.
In Week 8 of the pandemic, we get a new mail carrier. My heart races when I look out the window and catch sight of her masked face, eye level with my own. The mask as the uncanny. Our usual guy doesn’t wear a mask, just an orange knit hat you can spot all the way down the street. I wonder if the usual guy is on a new route or quit or is sick.
I’ve made the mistake of using the gendered term mailman in front of my two-year-old son and now I have to walk it back. Mail carrier, I correct. But the damage is done. Mailman carrier, he calls her.
I envision St. Christopher, ferrying postal workers across the street.
On ordinary mornings, I used to occupy my son with the ritual of watching for the school bus: anticipating the squeal of brakes at seven-thirty, holding him up to the window to wave. The last day before the school closures, we went through the routine as usual. Bye-bye, bus. Bye-bye, kids.
These days there is little to witness. The absence of cars is conspicuous. The street outside used to be crowded at semi-regular intervals, since we live adjacent to a funeral home. I’d look up the obituaries on their website when mourners resorted to illegal street parking. Overcrowded visiting hours usually meant that the deceased was either a longtime community leader or tragically young. Died unexpectedly, the obituaries sometimes say. Often, this is code for a suicide or an overdose.
Now there are no funerals. Plenty of deaths, of course, but no funerals. Their website still lists obituaries: Private graveside service. Cremation has taken place. A celebration of life to be held at a future date. A church service will be held once restrictions are lifted. Mourning has gone underground.
I point out every passing garbage truck and maintenance van, hoping to buy my kid a few moments’ amusement. An elderly neighbor, Ralph, takes a slow stroll around the block most mornings; Hi, Ralph! we cry from the couch. Now my son refers to everyone on the outside as Ralph. Every stranger is interchangeable. Sometimes we see couples: to see two people together in this world is to know they are bound to one another at a cellular level.
The sight of the masked mail carrier reminds me of something, but I can’t think what it is. Every time I watch her walk up the street, I’m struck with a sort of déjà vu, a sense that I have imagined or conjured this image before. Finally, I realize what it is. I’m recalling the last line of Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”: Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
The mask as allusion.
The mail carrier delivers our water bill and an Easter card from my mother-in-law to my son. It is covered in felt bunny decals and he promptly destroys it; for days I am discovering disembodied ears. She delivers a literary journal that I will never find time to read and, for my son, the latest board book from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, The Little Excavator by Anna Dewdney, which I will read over and over and over, Thumpa thumpa bumpa bumpa beep beep beep.
I haven’t left the house in weeks. Consumed by the entwined mires of academia of domesticity, I spend all my time tending to my toddler and teaching online, sometimes alternately and sometimes simultaneously. I am cyclically sweeping up stray grains of rice from the kitchen floor and clearing tumbleweeds of cat hair from the furniture and washing bibs and dishes and grading essays and responding to emails that wish me well in these uncertain times. My husband and I arrange our work and parenting schedules, negotiating shared custody in our own home. I mark it all on the calendar, accounting for every hour. We cross paths in the kitchen at shift changes.
The mail carrier is the only other person I see. For me, this has become a comfort, a mainstay. The mask as habitus. For my dog, the daily mail delivery incites a defensive frenzy. His anxiety seems to have escalated to unmanageable levels during lockdown; he is in a perpetual state of agitation, desperate to alert us to every perceived threat. The schema of peril expands: first the blue Amazon vans, then all vans, then everything. He bolts back and forth across the yard, snarling at bicycles. One day he and another dog lunge through the fence at one another; when I wrestle him back, his mouth is filled with blood.
Mailman carrier, my son calls calmly at four o’clock, as the dog flings himself at the window.
During the summer of 1832, as a cholera epidemic spread across the United States, residents of Ypsilanti, Michigan Territory, formed a quarantine militia and opened fire on a mail stage that was attempting to enter from Detroit: an event that would later be known as the “Cholera War.” As armed conflicts go, the Cholera War was brief and nearly bloodless; its only casualty, a single horse. Meanwhile, thousands died in the epidemic’s American epicenter, New York City, as close quarters and poor sanitation facilitated the spread of waterborne bacteria. Most of the city’s wealthiest residents fled, evacuating Manhattan and taking shelter in their country estates upstate. The air was purer there, they believed—the breezes of the Hudson Valley less apt to carry the noxious miasma that was imagined to be the origin of the disease.
As is ever the case, quarantine borders are drawn and policed; as is ever the case, they are breached.
It’s okay, I say to the dog. He doesn’t believe it. I guess I don’t either.
The largest mailing in American history was a public health communication blitz: in 1988, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop sent a copy of the seven-page pamphlet Understanding AIDS to every household in the United States. By this point, the epidemic had been raging for seven years.
Like many public health publications, Understanding AIDS is staged as Q&A, reading like a dialogue between two formless Choruses: The Concerned Public on the one hand, The Experts on the other.
Q: Can you become infected?
A:Yes, if you engage in risky behavior.
Seven decades earlier, the United States Public Health Service, under the direction of Surgeon General Rupert Blue, had taken a similar tack. In September 1918, the USPHS issued a three-page circular on the origin, detection, treatment, and prevention of the so-called “Spanish flu.” Some six million copies the circular were printed and distributed across the country, reassuring Americans of the disease’s ordinariness, of the commonsense measures to contain it.
Cover up each cough and sneeze,
If you don’t you’ll spread disease.
While rhetoric of “risky behavior” that consolidated around AIDS referred to the shame-laden activities of the Other—sex and needle-sharing and more unspeakable sex—in the case of influenza, risk was produced and assumed by the mere act of breathing.
Q: What causes the disease and how is it spread?
A: Bacteriologists who have studied influenza epidemics in the past have found in many cases a very small rod-shaped germ called, after its discoverer, Pfeiffer’s bacillus. In other cases of apparently the same kind of disease there were found pneumococci, the germs of lobar pneumonia. Still others have been caused by streptococci, and by other germs with long names.
Surgeon General Blue had honed his skills in infectious disease mitigation a decade and a half earlier, during the bubonic plague outbreaks in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Yet pandemic influenza proved to be more challenging than plague. For one, the expert knowledge of bacteriologists—no matter how many syllables they could rattle off—was all but useless. The ontology of viruses would not be fully grasped until years later, after advances in microscopy enhanced our capacity for observation.
Still, for Blue, issues of transmission seemed more urgent than issues of etiology, and on this point he had more concrete advice to offer the American public. He understood that the disease was communicated through droplet contact: lethal disease agencies were expelled from the infection and transported intangibly into others’ respiratory systems via the invisible medium of the air. In this way, too, flu posed a more complex problem for public health authorities. Eliminating risk would take more than merely eradicating rats.
Q:How can one guard against influenza?
A:It is especially important to beware of the person who coughs and sneezes without covering his mouth and nose.
As always, suspicion lodges in others’ bodies. For Koop, these were the polluted bodies of addicts and prostitutes, and of course, primarily, the penetrable and penetrating bodies of gay men. In the morality play of the 1918 influenza circular, it is the uncircumspect cougher, spewing forth infection into the common property of the atmosphere.
Q: What should be done by those who catch the disease?
A: If the patient is so situated that he can be attended only by some one who must look after others in the family, it is advisable that such attendant wear a wrapper, apron, or gown over the ordinary house clothes while in the sick room, and slip this off when leaving to look after the others.
Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in dangerous disease germs by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient.
4. consent agenda
The mail carrier delivers an alumni magazine from my undergraduate institution, filled with cheerful updates about marriages and children, publications and promotions. As usual, I flip to the In Memoriam section at the end, perusing the names of the dead before tossing it in the recycling bin.
She delivers a final warning for an unpaid $1,500 medical bill that I am summoning the energy to contest and a coupon for a free donut: a thank-you gift from our interim associate dean for our commitment to online teaching. For faculty who have been told to brace for cuts and furloughs, an apple fritter feels like small consolation.
I slip into my campus office to collect two books, a cobweb-covered plant, and half a package of surgical masks leftover from the last semester’s influenza lecture.
America is out of masks. Public health authorities are imploring the public to stop hoarding N95 respirators, to save them for the frontline workers who need them. The mask as capital. The hashtag #GetUsPPE is trending; the nightly news features healthcare workers with improvised, handmade, MacGyvered gear: anything that might approximate a boundary. The mask as aegis.
A surge of instructional videos circulates on social media: how to sew homemade masks, how to not-sew them. Thank God for gendered labor: the women of Pinterest are flying to needle and thread like it’s the goddamn Civil War.
I spend hours on Etsy, overwhelmed by options. The mask as search term. The mask as rabbit hole. Toddler mask. Fabric mask for 2 year old. The kids’ masks come in an array of prints and patterns: Star Wars, Paw Patrol, Frozen 2. I comb the Internet for data, looking for evidence of comparative effectiveness: fabrics, fit, filters. Versions of the same refrain circulate: it is not a sure thing, but it’s better than nothing.
The mask as last resort.
But we want science to be certain, even as science is, in its very formulation, an engagement with uncertainty. We demand solutions approaching infallibility.
“A Gauze Mask is 99% Proof Against Influenza,” the Red Cross declared in a full-page ad that ran in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 22, 1918. The mask as evidence. The mask as independent variable. “Wear a Mask and Save Your Life!” The mask as mantra. The mask as panacea. The statistic is a blatantly manufactured one, a grab after public confidence and a way to situate responsibility for pandemic deaths with squarely individual behavior. The unmasked would henceforth be held as enemies of the state: “The man or woman or child who will not wear a mask now is a dangerous slacker.”
There is a cheerful wartime all-in-it-togetherism in the reorientation of attention toward individual effort. The mask as victory garden. The mask as patriotic imperative. Do Your Bit to Protect Me, reads a public health poster from 1918, on which “The Public”— represented here as an older, bowler-hatted white man—extends a handkerchief to a sneezing boy. The body politic is held precariously in the balance of this critical instant.
I order my son a blue mask with bunnies on it; a week later, the mail carrier delivers it, folded in a thin shipping envelope.
At the pre-op appointment for his ear tube surgery two months ago, the nurse had given us a pediatric anesthesia mask to take home with us. The mask as imitation game. My husband and I took turns pretending to take hits from it; we anesthetized teddy bears while our son regarded us without a flicker of interest.
No like it, he declares now, wresting his face away. He returns to pushing his toy shopping cart around the living room, shaking his head at the brazen imposition. He puts a plastic apple in the basket. A tiny mask slacker going about his errands.
A few days after the Red Cross ad ran in the Chronicle, the city of San Francisco passed an official mask ordinance, mandating a covering “of four thicknesses of material” for anyone appearing in public. “Mask slackers” faced fines, potential imprisonment or mandatory quarantine, and the particular social stigma reserved for the recreant. The front page of the October 25 edition of the Chronicle features photographs of prominent public figures—including Chief of the Board of Health, William Hassler—wearing their own gauze masks. Seven steely-eyed white men peer from the black-and-white page in all seriousness, exemplars for the skeptical.
Our Republican governor begins appearing in public in a blue and green checkered mask hand-sewn by his wife, Fran. On April 27, he issues a statewide mask order. On April 28, he reverses it. The mandate has been found to be “offensive to some of our fellow Ohioans,” he explains; it was, he realizes, “just a bridge too far. People were not going to accept the government telling them what to do.”
They weren’t too keen on it in 1918, either. Some saw it as an infringement on civil liberty. The mask as fascist infraction. Others were merely irritated by the inconvenience. The mask as albatross. There were tips and hacks to make masks more palatable, more fashionable. Ads for a “compound which prevents your glasses from fogging when wearing your face mask.” Advice on how to smoke, on “how to tailor the chic flu mask” that was in vogue on the West Coast. The mask as aesthetic.
Still, noncompliance rankled health authorities and newspaper editorialists. “Masks were noticeably absent on the faces of pretty girls yesterday,” the San Jose Evening News reported disapprovingly in the wake of the ordinance; “They walked abroad in the glory of their Sunday best with noses daintily powdered, and with innocent eyes under bewildering millinery they tried to look seriously unconscious of the fact that the mask order applied to them.”
It is always a popular object of ire, the silliness, the vanity of women.
Men with guns populate the steps of the Michigan state Capitol building, demanding freedom in the form of other people’s labor.
The mail carrier delivers our absentee ballots, though we’re right here; it’s the polls that are absent. The ballot contains a list of Democratic primary candidates who have dropped out of the race. Lately it feels like every choice is a false one.
In 1918, the Cleveland Plain Dealer expressed frustration with public resistance to well-intended public health measures, complaining that shoppers had been fleeing at the sight of masked clerks in the city’s department stores. “A lack of mental balance and common sense is what so often frustrates sane measures for public safety,” they declared. At the same time, the LA Times expressed concern that flu masks were facilitating criminal activity, cautioning readers that “Thieves and prowlers are using the influenza epidemic as a cloak for their depredations.” The mask as object of suspicion.
Of course, suspicion operates unevenly. The public health department in Franklin County, Ohio, issues official guidance to African Americans who might be experiencing “general reluctance” about mask-wearing due to the risks of profiling and discrimination. In response, they instruct Black people to “avoid fabrics that elicit deeply held stereotypes” and colors “associated with gang symbolism”: red, blue, et cetera. “It is not recommended to wear a scarf just simply tied around the head,” they counsel, “as this can indicate unsavory behavior.”
The mask as evidence that can and will be used against you.
There is public outcry, public apology.
Conditions of inequality are not created by disaster; they are only thrown into relief. The stark divisions in the American calculus of risk and the demographics of death. The unspoken expectations of safety, the privileged claims on the occupation of space. The lethal assumptions over whose bodies harbor risk, whose bodies are marked for death.
Ahmaud Arbery is murdered by two white men while jogging. Breonna Taylor is killed by police in her own home. George Floyd is publicly executed by police on the streets of Minneapolis. Masked protestors flood the streets amid fires and flash bombs, shattered glass and tear gas, chanting I can’t breathe.
November 1918: “war to end all wars” has ended. Mask orders have ended, too. In San Jose, restrictions are lifted on Armistice Day. Ten days later, in San Francisco, a siren wails in the city to indicate the all-clear.
“I may have been misunderstood,” the exasperated-sounding Surgeon General states December, “but I thought I had emphasized the fact that not only was the epidemic still present in many parts of the country, but in a number of places it is even more prevalent than it was in the early part of the epidemic. Any statement at the present time that the epidemic has ‘come and gone for good’ can only do harm,” he asserts, “for it will lull people into a false sense of security, and cause them to relax the precautions they should take to avoid the infection.”
There is talk about the fall semester. We are asked to imagine any and all eventualities. Imagination takes the place of planning. Students will come back to campus. Students will live in single rooms. Students will get take-out from the cafeteria three times a day and eat it in their single rooms. Students will maintain a six-foot distance from everyone, everywhere. The imagined universe of campus expands. Students will come to class half the time. Students will log into Zoom from their dorm rooms. Students will assume risk in sections. Faculty will assume as much risk as the administration demands. We will Clorox our desks. We will identify colleagues to teach our classes in the event that we get sick. We will all wear masks. We will shout muffled instructions at half-empty rooms. The mask magical thinking. The mask as metaphor. There is some buzz about branding. The mask as recruitment opportunity.
I assume I am the only instructor on campus who has actually conducted a masked class. It used to be a gimmick.
Within weeks of the easing of mask orders Bay Area, it is clear that a second wave had begun. Mandates are re-instated in January. This time, protestors mobilize en masse. The mask as last straw. More than four thousand members of the newly-founded “Anti-Mask League” gather in an ice rink in defiance of the perceived restriction on civil liberties. “We earnestly pray that the people be granted speedy relief from the burdensome provisions of this measure,” the League’ chairperson, Mrs. C.A. Harrington, writes in a letter presented at a meeting of the city’s Board of Supervisors. The mayor expresses little patience for the appeal. “We should give our minds to serious matters,” he responded—for instance, the serious unemployment rates among returning veterans—rather than wasting energies “fighting the little inconvenience occasioned by the wearing of a mask for the protection of the general public.”
Meanwhile “a woman tourist of Chicago” reportedly goes insane when she steps off a train from Santa Fe and is met with the sight of a masked Pasadena. The mask as pathology. “She is at the county hospital and in fits of delirium raves about masks and influenza,” the Riverside Daily Press reports. “The hospital physicians say there is no doubt that fear engendered by the masks temporarily unbalanced her mind.”
Couched among other fluff pieces on curiosities from Southern California—a mountain lion on the loose in Santa Monica; a man who lost a money-stuffed mattress in Los Angeles—and an advertisement for Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, a popular patent medicine that promised to alleviate all manner of “female ills,” the article reads as a kind of amusement: a case study in feminine fragility. Maybe the fantasy of an ending had taken root so strongly that it triggered a dissociative episode, an utter inability to reconcile the belief in the epidemic’s finality with the present reality.
Or maybe the delirium was an act of resistance, a refusal to inhabit the world as she saw it.
I break isolation on the eighty-sixth day to attend a protest where people lower their masks to scream. No justice, no peace. And why shouldn’t we be screaming, I think. The notion of the socially distant protest—like the idea of socially distant classroom—is utterly inconceivable. Besides, I think, the myth of insularity is over. We have forfeited the luxury of that presumption.
I thought that when I finally breached the hermetic confines of my life, when another body came within six feet of my own, I might be undone by a rupture in the imagined radius of safety. For months I’ve been avoiding others’ bodies and their speculative contagions. But standing for hours in the burning sun with hundreds of other sweating, screaming, breathing bodies feels less like a transgression than the point to which all of this has always been leading. Everywhere, these exercises in calculated risk assumption are juxtaposed starkly with the involuntary, obligatory assumption of risk that comes with simply living in a particular body.
The protest is led by Black students who should not have to be doing this. I am thinking about my own students, who once got extra credit for wearing a surgical mask for thirty minutes, who rendered their bodies objects of curiosity and suspicion for a lesson I designed.
I release my students by clicking an x in the corner of the screen. At the end of the semester, we will unceremoniously usher a stream of graduates into this world and ask them—in all seeming seriousness—to change it. Meanwhile, I think, we have created and sustained a world that many of them cannot even survive. We hold out what we have to offer: a textbook, a gauze mask, a cardboard protest sign. We express unwavering confidence in the capacities of their imaginations to unmake this world. We wish them well in these uncertain times.
Emily Waples is Assistant Professor of Biomedical Humanities and Director of the Center for Literature and Medicine at Hiram College. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in venues including Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and River Teeth.