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After COVID, let’s keep our masks on

IT HAS BEEN A YEAR since the pandemic hit India and, for me, the oddest thing is how healthy I’ve been. Like most but not all of the people I see on the streets, I have been masked up these past 12 months. I’ve washed my hands religiously and avoided crowds. As a result, for the first time in my life, I haven’t caught a cold all year.

This is remarkable. Living in Delhi, with its crowds and its sudden changes of season, usually means one picks up pretty much every bug that’s going around.

I am not fond of masks. And, in the steam-bath summers of north India, wearing something on your face can be stifling. And yet I find myself hoping that once this pandemic ends, the habit of mask-wearing will remain.

Not all the time, of course. That might be asking too much. But wouldn’t it be great if city-dwellers across the world began to behave a little more like those in East Asia? If, during flu season, people wore masks whenever they planned to take a flight or join a crowd? That if they caught themselves sniffling, they grabbed a mask on their way out the door?

I recognize that this dream might be a little difficult to achieve in some parts of the world. This century has set a ridiculously high bar for partisanship and polarization but, even by those standards, the transformation of mask-wearing into a political statement in the United States and elsewhere has been appalling.

Surely, of all the things one could do to prevent the spread of disease, mask-wearing is the easiest to understand. Instead, it’s as if one whole section of humanity decided it was perfectly polite to cough in people’s faces.

Nor have the health authorities always been as sensible about this as one would like: Last March, remember, people like Dr. Anthony Fauci were telling Americans that “there’s no reason to be walking around with a mask.” While they changed their minds later, inconsistent messaging is still damaging.

There’s another reason why masks have been the silver lining of this awful year, at least as far as I’m concerned. Last March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered India into one of the most restrictive lockdowns in the world. Markets were shut, deliveries stopped, nobody could buy anything — but I felt rich. Because, lying by the door of my Delhi flat, I had lots of N95 masks.

This was not because I miraculously foresaw the pandemic. (If I had, I would have shorted the market, not bought masks.) Nor had I hoarded masks the moment news of the virus emerged.

The reason I had masks on hand was simple: I had bought a large number of them a few winters earlier. Not for fear of the flu but because, in Delhi, even breathing is dangerous. This is the most polluted megacity in the world. In 2020, two-thirds of the world’s most polluted cities were in India, most of them in the northern plains around Delhi. Sensible people, faced with air quality more than 10 times worse than it should be, wear a mask to protect their lungs.

Yet, the first few times I went out in Delhi with a mask, I felt foolish. In those halcyon pre-pandemic days, nobody around me was wearing one. They stood chatting to each other in the mild winter weather, manfully breathing in the gray, toxic air.

That’s yet another reason why I’m glad that people have gotten used to wearing and seeing masks. Even when there’s no pandemic around, going maskless in Delhi can kill you.


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