Medical masks have become part of daily life in hospice and palliative care units all over the world over the past three years. We have had to get used to having important conversations with most of our faces covered. Compassionate expressions have had to be conveyed with the aid of eyebrows and hands. Smiles have been with eyes only rather than with the full face.
There are a number of workmates I have worked with for two years or more, with which we have never seen each other’s faces. I removed my mask in order to be heard more clearly during a family meeting the other day and my patient who had known me for eight months saw my whole face for the first time. There are young children who have only known people outside of their own families to wear masks most of the time. Things are changing with the easing of COVID restrictions but for the healthcare workforce, it will be a while yet until we can take off our masks for good.
A barrier to viruses can also serve as a barrier to communication. People who have hearing impairments cannot lip-read if other people’s mouths are completely covered. There has been less transmission of yawns. Apparently, if you are more empathetic and you see someone else yawn, it can trigger a yawn of your own.
On the other side of the mask is that there are many choices of masks that people can choose to wear. Maybe it has allowed people to show more clearly what fashions they want to show off. People can show their membership in groups with the type of mask they wear. They don’t just have to be the same old boring surgical light blue but can be any colour of the rainbow.
Has it become easier for people to mask their intentions? What else is being hidden? What else is being left unshared? Kisses are left unblown. We are now more familiar with the smell of our own breath than ever before. What else has been lost since we have been wearing masks? Will we ever get those things back?