I bought a pack of face masks, and it was instructive.
Hagen Engler. Picture: Supplied
Firstly, because the man at the counter said, “We have two packs. How many do you want?”
It was the true essence of this social moment, contained in five words. Fear versus love. The individual versus the group. Want? At that moment, I wanted all the face masks on the planet of Earth. I wanted a face mask the size of a hang-glider! I wanted face masks for every square inch of my body!
But given the vibe, and conscious that someone else would quite possibly require them, I settled for the one pack of five masks.
Magnanimity exhausted, I tore the pack open and donned a mask before I’d even paid for it. The effect was instantaneous: I felt safer.
This effect may have been illusory, because these were not the famed N95 masks, just the kind of thing you might see the heartthrob surgeon wearing in a hospital soapie. But I did feel safer. I looked silly, to be sure, and I grudgingly forewent eye contact with one of the more attractive women I have seen in Johannesburg recently, there by the Pick n Pay chips aisle.
But I felt confident, and I sensed in the way I was treated by others, that people saw me as a low-risk neighbour. I felt, in a sense, like I was doing my bit for my community. Minimising my risk of passing on anything untoward. But my face was invisible. I was essentially indistinguishable from any other middle-aged white man you could imagine.
I had sacrificed my individuality. Partly, I had done so out of fear. But in another way, I was sublimating my need to be acknowledged as me. Me with my distinctive face, for better or worse. The curve of my lips, my nose, my expressions. All of that was gone.
I made my purchases swiftly and efficiently and got the hell out of there, as one does. I did so conscious of the parallels with what we are all going through right now.
We are accepting limits on our personal freedom, our right to individual liberty, for the greater good of society.
We curtail, no we end our personal movement, our mobility, our purchasing behaviour, our mobile self-expression; all of that to minimise interpersonal contact, and thus to slow the spread of this thing.
Could we say that that sense of liberty, of humanity’s expressing its “right” to exploit the resources of the planet, could have caused some of this?
Has exploitive human liberty impinged on nature’s last redoubts and thereby released molecules that can harm us? Perhaps we will know one day.
Until then, many of us will accept these limits on our individuality as temporary. But there may be longer-term shifts. When individual liberty happens at the expense of other individuals, it can surely not be justified.
We all agree that for an infected person to knowingly go out in public where they can infect others is wrong. But is it any less wrong to rob others of their health, freedom and happiness through business, policy and economics?
This is probably not the time to get into that. But one senses that time will come.
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