Masking anxiety, showing care



Who knew that the greatest moral debate of our time would be whether or not to wear a mask? Having sewed my first mask many weeks ago, I’ve been following the millions of words written and spoken on the efficacy of masks, whether to wear them, who should wear them, how to use them, and how to make them. In a genre that is already bending my brain, there is a special sub-category of mask-shaming.

Person holds homemade mask (Getty images/Rike)

The polarised global debate manages to shame both mask wearers/promoters (especially where that involves medical masks for the public), and those who do not wear masks. The science, apparently, is ‘in’. On both sides.

I’m not here to mask shame. I’m not here to evaluate the science of masks in a specifically COVID-19 pandemic. (Mask efficacy for the general public is pathogen specific, I understand.) And I’m not here to promote masks or otherwise.

I simply offer the observation that my own mask ‘practice’ is a practice of love and care that exists purely in the social and not within the realms of science.

When my children were small, some days were tough. For whatever reason, school was an emotional or psychic bridge too far. But life goes on. And so, I gave them a token of my love for them. A talisman by which to remember that this too would pass, and we would be reunited. The token was a hand-made glass bead threaded on a satin ribbon. I would tie it on their little wrists, or they could carry it in their pocket. Whenever they felt the sadness or the worry surge within them, they could hold the bead. Play with it in their fingers. And be reminded that their equilibrium would soon return.

If a member of our family is sick, we have a routine of care developed also when the children were small. It includes particular food — chicken broth, fresh juice jellies — and until the kids were too old, the special mattress pulled up by our bed. Rituals designed to soothe the heart and thereby to still a fevered mind, absent the science.

These days, I knit. Knitting is a meditative activity that resolves my own angst, whilst channelling it into creating garments that themselves signify care for others. I only make shawls, or wraps. The symbolism is clear. Even when I am far away, the wrap will enfold the wearer as a sign of love and of care.


'I make them, and give them, because I care. The people I give them to wear them because they are fearful, and, for the most part, vulnerable. The masks are a means of sharing our humanity.'


Before the widespread political and social engagement with coronavirus in Australia, I was already looking ahead. It is a feature of the anxious that they remain hypervigilant and I am no exception. My response was to prepare my (adult) children and my partner, and my elderly relatives, for the likely advent of significant changes to our lives. Part of my preparation included investigating masks. Conscious of not wanting to draw on medical supplies, and in light of my sewing skills and abundant stocks of remnant fabric, I found out as much as I could about how to make cloth masks.

There came a point in my reading that it was clear that there was no robust scientific, peer reviewed evidence to support cloth masks as offering genuine protection for the general public against this type of pathogen. And yet, I sewed them. I gave them to my family, to friends with older relatives, and I have now given them also to community health services to distribute within the communities they serve.

I see the public health advice is that masks will take resources away from frontline health workers. Well, not these masks.

So, if the public health advice is that masks do not work, why then have I persisted in making them? For the same reason that I gave my children a glass bead, that in my family chicken broth makes you feel better, and a woollen wrap even in a Queensland summer, means that my heart enfolds you. I make them, and give them, because I care. The people I give them to wear them because they are fearful, and, for the most part, vulnerable. The masks are a means of sharing our humanity.

To be sure, those who have received masks from me acknowledge that they are not medical, that frequent hand washing is imperative, and that face touching is out. The masks can only be worn briefly, and they must be changed frequently and washed in hot water and detergent. Maintaining physical distancing is a given. But the masks give them confidence to do the things that remain permitted as a supplement to all recommended behaviours.

I’ve seen social media posts by some in the sewing community who cannot bear to sew masks. Too much anxiety. Too much worry about their lack of efficacy. Too much pressure. All of these views are valid responses — everyone is responding differently. For me though, sewing batches of cloth masks at a time is a tangible means of connecting with others, and a psychic salve in these disconcerting times.



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice. She is presently associate professor of law at Griffith Law School.

Main image: Person holds homemade mask (Getty images/Rike)

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, COVID-19, coronavirus, masks



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Existing comments

Wearing a mask is a sign of respect. As once not long ago shaking hand with someone you were just introduced to was. When I see someone wearing a mask, l feel reassured that person honours his/her own life, and everybody else's. Professor Liam Glynn (Ireland) has advised that everyone should be behaving as if they have the coronavirus. “We should all be behaving as if we have Covid-19”. The use of face masks in communities may help reduce the spread of Covid-19, the European Centre for Disease Control said last week. The ECDC report said the use of face masks in the community - such as when visiting supermarkets, shopping centres or when using public transport - may be a source of control to aid in reducing the spread. The Irish Sun. I agree.
AO | 16 April 2020

Thank you Kate, recently I made some cloth masks, I researched the patterns, read the conflicting views and went ahead and made a batch. Your article was what was at the core of why I did this, but I couldn’t quite put the words to it. Over the last 30 years I make rugs for family members and friends for the same reason. Thanks for putting words to this for me. Peace
Marg | 17 April 2020

Sure, I'd wear a mask if I could get one! (I mean, if I could get one for every day - they are meant to be disposable and re-wearing them or wearing the wrong type actually increases the risk of transmission). Sorry to be cynical, AO, but when I see someone wearing a mask I wonder, how fresh is that mask ? And how effective would it be if you had the virus? And the type of cloth re-usuable ones are made with is important too - apparently the test is to spray aerosol deodorant through the clothe to see if anything can get through the other side.
AURELIUS | 17 April 2020

“shawls, or wraps. The symbolism is clear. Even when I am far away, the wrap will enfold the wearer as a sign of love and of care.” Which is why any Christian church that doesn’t have a Marian theology is a deficient church, because the symbolism of multiplying loaves and fishes is one thing, but that of shawls and wraps another.
roy chen yee | 18 April 2020

To mask or be unmasked... such a dilemma. Some authorities say "yes" either to all persons or just for the infectious to contain spread; the CMO says "no", because it may give a false sense of security (the equivalent of driving carelessly because you're wearing a seat belt) but methinks it purely relates to availability; if everyone needed a proper P2/N95 mask the panic buying would be uncontrollable. It seems an unfortunate coincidence that the Government authorized television community announcement depicts a lab technician with her microscope but not wearing any PPE and the unfortunate incident that a female Cairns technician has tested positive... perhaps that TV image needs a re-think? Irrespective of viral nasties, even basic cloth masks filter other dust and particulates quite effectively, particularly if you're stuck inside with a dog or cat...and can't buy Ventolin anywhere.
ray | 18 April 2020


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