I was looking at masks when I flew up to Auckland this week, and wondering how people decided to select the mask they were wearing that day. Mask selection is not something that anyone in New Zealand thought about until 2020. The lack of practice at mask wearing makes mask selection all the harder. However, there is a mental fall back position, in that humans are very accustomed to selecting the clothes they put on every day, and masks are pretty much clothing. Or are they adornment?
There was a lot of variety of masks to view as people moved down the plane aisle. I was torn as to my favourite. There was a teenage boy with his parents, who talked a mile a minute all the way through the security queue and only fell silent when he put his earbuds in and switched his iPad on after the safety announcement on the plane. His parents must really love those earbuds. Technology aside, he was wearing a purple and yellow Lakers sweatshirt and a matching purple and yellow Lakers mask. They were spectacular and very clearly a specific choice. My other favourite was a woman wearing a highly coloured and patterned mask with a highly coloured and patterned blouse but the two items had completely different patterns and colours on them. I wondered if she had bought the mask because she liked bright patterns and colours, but only bought one so she couldn’t match it to the rest of her clothing. Or perhaps she likes wearing items where the colours and patterns are dissimilar, I couldn’t tell from the rest of her clothing.
There were lots of black masks, grey masks, a few stripey masks, a pink mask and some with flowers on them. The mask I forgot to take is light blue with flower patterns on it. However, I was in the category of the disposable mask given my forgetfulness. I pondered on the numbers of people with disposable masks, they probably comprised half the passengers. Were they like me, forgetful? Or are some still protesting the need to wear masks by refusing to buy one?
I actually went looking for another ‘permanent’ mask to buy, rather than take a disposable one from the flight crew. It was quite surprising how few masks were available in the airport and how most of them were not prominently displayed. You would think it an excellent opportunity to pull people into the shop when they realise they forgot their mask and would like another good one, but that’s not how the retailers are behaving. I wondered whether masks are still not seen as a universal ‘good’ in New Zealand, so the retailers don’t want to sully the rest of their merchandise by mixing it with masks. Of the masks I found, most had disposable filters in them. This seemed wrong, I was looking for a cloth mask so I didn’t have to throw items away, so I didn’t buy one. It did make me wonder, are masks with filters better?
So I looked up the government’s advice. The first thing I discovered was that our government says ‘face covering’, not ‘mask’. This seems longer and clumsier but presumably is a tactic to get away from any innate dislike of ‘masks’ – a word with a whole lot of connotations. There is nothing in the government recommendations about cloth masks with filters added to them with, my conclusion being that filters are most likely are not necessary and they definitely create waste.
There’s a whole other set of difficult decisions to be made in the next year, decisions rather more challenging than, ‘Which face covering shall I wear today?’. These decisions will include what levels of vaccination we are targeting in New Zealand, what proportion of the population (at every scale) needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity, and how and when will New Zealand try to shift from COVID-19 as a pandemic which we eliminate, to COVID-19 as endemic, which we live with.
Shifting from a pandemic response, to COVID-19 as endemic, will be a critical and difficult period for our country. We have built a psyche around keeping the virus out, and been more successful at this than much of the world. Eliminating COVID-19 is a platform we can be proud of and certainly one that has served our government well, as well as the government serving the platform. However, we are not going to remain a nation with closed borders forever (well, I assume not!). Therefore, at some point, we will have to take reduce controls and take increased risks that people will come in who have COVID-19. When will we stop using MIQ to weed out people with COVID-19? When will we stop locking down parts of the country if there are some number of people in the community who have COVID-19? How many people in every part of the community need to be vaccinated such that COVID-19 cannot spread when introduced to the community at large? What happens when a new variant starts to spread overseas and we are not sure whether the Pfizer vaccine is effective against it?
All these questions and more will be considered by a new advisory group, headed by Sir David Skegg. Ministers will make the final decisions as to when and how we open up, but the advice of the advisory group will be crucial. That group, and the government, will have some difficult decisions to make indeed!