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  • Writer's pictureMartijn

Latin America in the not-so-good news: prepare your facemasks

Updated: Jun 25, 2020

You must have seen it : Latin America is now the new epicenter of the pandemic. All news used to be only about Italy, Spain, France and later the UK, but now it's our turn! Iran was also bad but not as popular as a media topic...

In any case, the Argentina government has seen it also because they are about to add 2 additional, even stricter, weeks to the 101 days of lock-down. Aaargh.

As I have pointed out occasionally, Latin America is not a good place for a pandemic: the health and social systems are failing, the economies are weak and there is plenty of corruption (I didn't know this but according to Transparency International the health sector is the most corrupt and it is estimated that about 20% of public health expenditures end up in private pockets). And all this is very visible. Society is increasingly hurting -hunger can't be quarantined- and more and more people are convinced that the government is using the excuse of the virus to make all kinds of horrible populist moves and to sweep issues under the carpet. I am quite sure people say that in every country but I am unfortunately more inclined to believe it here in Latin America than in some other places.

Argentina is still relatively spared (about 1200 deaths to date) but despite a long preparation time, they have little Intensive Care capacity and are worried about it getting out of hand. Were the time and money well used? According to Transparency International, Argentina ranks 66/198 in corruption perception index, could be worse... But then again, they have been announcing a peak in 2 weeks for the past 2 months... And anyone who complains is easily put back in his or her place with the answer "surely you don't want Argentina to become a disaster like Chile, Peru or Brazil", which of course is very true.

So I guess there is not much else to do than to arm ourselves with patience and lots of face-masks (to match our lock-down outfits!).

Luckily, we can also travel through the world of face-masks. Here are nice samples from Russia and Africa,

Baby models from Costa Rica (awwww) and dog masks in Asia (ughhhh),

And personally, I can not help finding some similarity with other types of face veils, as explained in the mini-story below, written for my workshop this week.


Again, I had to dodge a person on the sidewalk. We both had masks, but we were less than 1m50 apart. I was so focused on the distancing that I did not perceive the usual descriptors that the lizard brain instantly records to check if any archaic reaction -fight or flight?- is needed. Therefore, I couldn’t say whether the subject was male or female, young or old, happy or sad, friendly or potentially dangerous beyond his or her physical proximity. The mask hindered all scrutiny.

As I moved away, I remembered the Islamic women I used to see on my walks through London, dressed in wide coats and niqabs, those face coverings that only reveal the eyes. It was difficult to guess their age, although their posture and gait did give some clues. For all I knew, they might even have been men in disguise. That idea amused me, as did the question of what happened when these women - because most of them would be - returned to their homes. Did they remove the niqab with relief or with indifference? I suspected that it depended a lot on the reality of each of them: some probably wore the covering out of personal choice, to show belonging to their group; others simply out of habit, but there surely also were women who had no choice, because their husband or government imposed it on them. The latter undoubtedly removed their niqab with rage.

I would also try to imagine what the women wore under their cloaks. A discreet dress that hid their shapes like the coat itself? Modern clothes, fine lingerie? Nothing at all? Would there be the same kinds of suspicions about Islamic dress as about the Scottish kilt? My guess was that their clothes were rather modest, but on the other hand I had read in a magazine that when upper-class women got together with friends for tea, they would take advantage of the safe haven of the hostess's house to exhibit modern and expensive designer clothes, luxury jewelry and eye-catching makeup. Clearly, coats and niqabs concealed entire secret identities that were only exposed in the privacy of the most intimate circle.

Although the lives of those ladies and mine are worlds apart, now that my daily outfit includes a facemask, I might understand the experiences of women who wear veils a tiny bit better. I now also appear in public in a kind of semi-anonymity, due to the absence of nose, mouth and chin. At first it felt strange, as an obligation, a loss of freedom, but I am used to it now and sense that this new accessory signifies my belonging in the group of “responsible citizens”. Without it, I might even feel like a black sheep today, whereas in the early days of the pandemic, I would feel conspicuous wearing a mask because so few others used one! At times, I enjoy being covered because it makes me less visible, less vulnerable to evaluative - and sometimes indelicate - glances from strangers. But at others, I can't wait to enter a friendly house and tear off the mask to unveil my true identity.

Such power in a few simple pieces of cloth!

Yours truly,

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