It’s thirty years since the liberation of Romanian orphanages. In 1990, the world looked on in horror, disbelief and sorrow as, after the execution of the country’s head of state Nicolae Ceauşescu, foreign relief workers entered the institutions. Babies, children and teenagers kept in heartbreaking conditions stared forlornly from their ‘wards’, some unable to communicate. Many never having seen a smile, from each other nor the staff into whose questionable care they had been abdicated.
Psychologists studying the effects of the lack of human contact on these youngsters discovered that fewer neural pathways were built within the brain of a baby whose smiles were not answered. This stark example shows us how important our faces are to each other.
A hidden face can be interpreted as sinister; certainly in popular culture. Criminals in Scooby Doo were often literally unmasked at the end of each cartoon by the crime-fighting gang. Star Wars villain, the dark lord Darth Vader; comic book antihero Rorschach, and, for you children of the 1970s out there, wrestling baddie the mystical cowled Kendo Nagasaki, are all deliberately obscured and unreadable.
A few weeks into lockdown, Island son Dominic Minghella was admitted to hospital with COVID-19. Reading his unfolding story, his fear palpable, he said one of the hardest things during his treatment was not being able to see a face. The medical personnel who attended to him were clad in personal protective equipment; faces – entire bodies – shrouded.
“The extraordinary isolation.” he recalled, “Without a face to connect with, you lose your mind. I know because, in just days, I lost mine.”
Understanding the importance of seeing human faces, some medics have taped photos of themselves smiling to the outside of their gowns. This simple way of communicating has proven to be powerfully effective.
As we dip a toe back among the humans after months of lockdown, we are compelled to wear face coverings. We are told that this will help arrest the spread of the virus; that we can’t travel on public transport without wearing a mask of some sort. They don’t need to be medical-grade disposable masks, you can make your own reusable washable ones. As long as they capture and halt any spread of droplets from your mouth and nose, they will go some way to contain the deadly virus, should you unwittingly be outdoors and infected. If you have symptoms then you need to Stay at Home to Save Lives.
As a public sector worker, I have had the jibe ‘faceless bureaucrat’ aimed at me. Now, behind my mask, I will live up to that put-down. But I don’t want to look unfriendly, criminal or sinister. How about this for a free idea: taking a leaf out of the emoji handbook, let’s wear decorated masks which display our current mood. A beaming smile, or a slightly quizzical mouth; maybe a righteous grump. Or how about a perpetual pout, blowing kisses at everyone who maintains social distancing. We can all be masked superheroes – cape optional.