By Edlyne Anugwom

THE renowned classical sociologist, Emile Durkheim, must be turning in his grave at the spectacle of our new masked society where social interaction and cohesion are now subjected to necessary intermediation. It is no longer a face-to-face interaction and the fostering of social cohesion.

These have been replaced with mask-to-mask interaction and the fostering of physical distancing. Solidarity and cohesion have been literally unbundled by the new virus ravaging the globe now. They are gradually becoming metaphors for disease and even death.

Be the above as it may, I would conflate masquerade with mask here despite how discomforting this may appear to purists. However, the aim is not just to achieve parody but equally underline how the improbable can metamorphose into the new norm and reimagine the past in new contexts. Without doubt, the current COVID-19 pandemic is a serious matter deserving of serious attention and my intention is no less serious here.

The masquerade cult in tradition derives veneration from the fact that masquerades are seen as intermediaries between the living and the gods or ancestors. No wonder, they are often referred to as masked spirits, implying that putting on the mask within proper traditional norms literally transforms the wearer to a spirit, suggesting also immortality since spirits do not die.

Masking in covid also portends protection from mortality associated with the virus. We need masks in different contexts to strengthen our frail human form and make ourselves able to stand before the gods chastised and cleansed as it were.

However, while the masquerade cult of yonder years was a distinguished and exalted cult and the preoccupation of noble and honourable men; it has become a common and widespread obligation of all right-thinking citizens nowadays. In the olden days, masking needed elaborate initiation and rituals and was only accessible to bonafide and often chosen citizens.

Masking also followed strictly laid down rules and strictures regarding who gets involved, how and when. But masking now follows no strict pattern except covering the nose and mouth; it also needs no special regalia or accoutrements and expressively disfigured visage of terror or even beauty but rather appeals to all forms and all shades.

The masks today make for a study in both aesthetic diversity and economic capacity. But the underlining requirement is you must not leave the house without masking: that is  the mask has become not just a health tool but even a crucial tool of identity. Only those who are masked or with face masks are allowed on the roads and streets and in offices also. Those who for any reason cannot afford to mask are alienated from otherwise open and official corridors of society.

And masking in some establishments comes with ritual purification like in the traditional mask system. A purification requiring ritual items like water, soap and the ubiquitous sanitizer in order to be fortified to overcome the anger and wrath of the new goddess of COVID-19. Metaphorically, the purification of the hands in spite of literally suggesting cleaning one’s hands also implies coming with clean or unsullied spirit.

As one acquaintance keenly observed in a private conversation, the new mask makes it impossible to behold who you are talking to and has also obliterated more than half of the facial expressions key to non-verbal communication. In other words, talking to someone now is akin to talking to half-the person or akin to incomplete communication since only the voiced words and half or less of the facial expressions necessary to decoding communication are availed. But the above resonates with the new normal.

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The re-imagined norm of the covid era. An era that may have brought us willy-nilly to wholeheartedly embrace the mask and adopt volitional masking. The masquerade is no longer a relic of the arcane past or the boisterous display of idolatry and obtuse unbelief. Masking nowadays as it was in the olden days performs useful functions for the society. However, the functions are both dissimilar and paradoxically similar.

Masking now is an imperative to a healthy society; to the desire to live. In the olden days, masking was about living and surviving through negotiating the thin line between the sacred and the mundane. And was also seen as crucial for the health of the society.

Masking was equally critical in enforcing discipline in the society and reining-in the recklessness and unjustified umbrage of unruly members of the society. The masquerade was an instrument of order and social discipline. In the covid society, masking also coheres with discipline. And errant members are punished though through means and mechanisms in sync with the formal society of today.

Incidentally, the new mask culture has been able to achieve what decades of gender activism and militancy have failed to accomplish i.e. a total gender-neutral society where both men and women (and even other sexualities) are treated or rather masked equally.

Perhaps, in more ways than ordinarily discernable, covid has broken all barriers not only in terms of exposing the frailty of the economic and political elites (as main bearers and sufferers of the disease) of the society but also the uselessness of gender as a distinguishing category in modern society. Interestingly, the gender desegregation of covid cases shows that more men than women have become infected (going by NCDC figures in Nigeria). So, it may as well be a message from the gods!!

The new mask also drags up the issue of hygiene. Yes, mask hygiene. I believe this is one aspect of the new generalized trait that those in charge should focus on among their many take-on. People need to know that you wear a mask only for a day and change it every other day. Some others need to even go through two or three masks a day especially those whose daily activities are heavily speech oriented. Masks need to be cleaned or disinfected after every use or discarded entirely. The hygiene is imperative if we do not want to inject an epidemic into the pandemic.

Hopefully, we are all now masked and gyrating to the tunes of covid though the real drumbeats (albeit palliatives) remain distant echoes for a huge number of the masked spirits. Reminding us of the unbridgeable gap between the Marxian haves and have-nots. As the mask goes now, you can still tell the difference between those who are loaded or privileged and the rest of us, the wretched of Nigeria.

Before the arrival of covid and the redefinition of social realities consequent upon it, the mask and masquerading were in speedy recession from the consciousness of the people. Like most aspects of cultural heritage plagued by misguided consumerist modernity, the masquerade had become more or less a part of seasonal leisure than a social referent for living in society.

People are thus more wont to perceive the masquerade and public masking as phenomena associated with festivities and public display of emotionson special occasions rather than significant and serious embodiments of culture and society. Once again, the past has become reinvented in the present, underlining the potency of the African cosmology in which the past, present and future are inexorably intertwined.

 *Professor Anugwom wrote from the Department of Sociology/Anthropology University of Nigeria, Nsukka. He can be reached via: akommiri@gmail.com

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