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What is a Mask?

French President Macron is one of few European leaders who has worn a mask in public.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAMUEL STOLTON

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Love in the European Quarter

What is a Mask?

During periods of crisis, symbols often surface to capture the cultural and historical zeitgeist. At the current time across Europe, there is none more pertinent than the humble face mask.

The luckiest of us have obtained the classic N95 respirator, while others wear the light-blue toned surgical mask. Amid a global shortage, the most unfortunate of us are resigned to burying our heads into jacket collars, enveloping our sun-deprived faces in winter scarves, or just meekly cupping our hands over dry and desperately lonely lips.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.


Globally over the past 12-months, the face mask has come to symbolise several modern conditions. In Hong Kong, the item stood for rebellion and political struggle – being as it was worn by pro-democracy campaigners during the riots that crippled the city last year. During the Australian bushfires, the mask was seen to embody the persistent and inevitable climate crisis.

Amid the Corona-age, the symbolism of the mask returns to its Enlightenment-era roots in the 18th century. One merely has to cast one’s mind to Michel Serre’s painting, Scène de la peste de 1720 à la Tourette, which depicts Marseille’s struggles with the bubonic plague, to realise how the face mask came to be associated with sickness or disease.

Despite this, the science of the time wasn’t quite advanced enough to realize that the spread of the bubonic plague could have been a result of human to human or animal to human transmission. Rather, the prevailing notion was that people contracted the plague from lethal gases in the atmosphere or putrid vapours being drawn up from the earth’s surface – hardly surprising considering the filth of the 18th century metropolitan thoroughfare.

Back to the modern age, and the geopolitics of the mask have been brought to the fore this week, following China’s mass donations to Europe, prompting the EU’s foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell to issue a warning that a ‘politics of generosity’ is being played out in carefully contrived diplomatic narratives. This is something that the Chinese have been keen to distance themselves from, with Zhang Ming, Head of the Chinese Mission to the EU, saying that the fight against COVID-19 has nothing to do with geopolitics.

In terms of the N95 respirator – the face mask deemed to be the most effective in guarding against the coronavirus – China was the birthplace of the technology behind this mask. This came during the spread of the pneumonic plague of Manchuria in the northeast of the country in 1910.

After being called in to help with stifling the spread of the disease, which had a case fatality rate of close to 100%, Doctor Wu Lien-teh’s research led him to believe that contrary to popular opinion, the plague was most likely to be airborne.

Having been the first medical student of Chinese descent to study at the University of Cambridge, Wu incorporated European elements of facial masks – which had prevailed since the aforementioned bubonic plague – into a new design, featuring layers of cotton and gauze used to filter air. The modern ‘respirator’ was born.

The European ignorance to Wu’s revolutionary design was made startlingly evident when his paths crossed with an old rival from the West – French Doctor Gérald Mesny, who had been posted to Manchuria to aid in the fight against the plague. Mesny refused to take up Wu’s new mask, and just days after attending to plague patents in the region, the Frenchman died of the disease himself.


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It’s too much of a stretch to accuse Borrell of the same ignorance – but there has been a peculiar lack of willingness on behalf of EU leaders to be seen wearing masks. Whether or not leaders want to distance themselves from an object technologically pioneered in the far-east, whether they would want to resist the symbolic proximity the mask has to perceptions of sickness or disease, or whether they would not want to adorn the object for fear of offering potentially flawed medical advice, remains unclear.

Over the past week, I’ve only seen two European heads of state wear face masks publicly: Slovakia’s Zuzana Čaputová, and separately France’s President Macron, during a visit to a military hospital in Mulhouse, eastern France. After Marseille in the early 1720’s, perhaps the French have a particular penchant towards the face mask and its life-saving potentials. Yet there was indeed something peculiar about one of the world’s most powerful political leaders wearing it.

The decision to wear the face mask marked Macron out as a person ‘at risk’ – a mere organism subject to the selfsame frailties of the human body as the rest of us, and not as a political Übermensch as so many modern leaders purport to be. The wearing of the mask didn’t dehumanise Macron, but rather humanised him. This is something lots of politicians are reluctant to do, unless absolutely necessary.

If you turn to Henry David Thoreau’s 1859 Journal, you will find that on this day, the American environmentalist and writer records the first blossoming of Spring’s flowers. In Brussels, that same blossoming is emerging in a spirit of exuberance, without the disturbance of human activity and all the pollutants that the modern metropolitan life brings with itself.

In Spring 2020, we are not there: cooped up in our townhouses, we sing to one another from balconies and give praise to the medical authorities with raucous applause at 8pm every evening.

The humble mask, however, temporality punctures the illusion. It is the instrument that allows us to open the door to the ‘outside world’ and to drink from the chalice of normality, for a fleeting moment permitting us to savour the freedoms of everyday life of which we have probably never been so petrifyingly aware.

This frankly absurd-looking object is our sole channel to the real world, and I fear we may be seeing millions more of them on our streets over the next few months.


Sent out every Friday afternoon, BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Samuel Stolton helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels.

If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every Friday, subscribe to the newsletter here.