The masks are cov­er­ing peo­ple’s smiles

CityPress - - Voices - Moeti has a back­ground in civic ac­tivism and has over the years worked at the in­ter­sec­tion of gov­er­nance, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and ci­ti­zen ac­tion. Last year, she was an­nounced as an At­lantic Fel­low for Racial Eq­uity. She is also an in­au­gu­ral Obama Foun­da­tion fe

For weeks, my eight-year-old son didn’t leave the yard, mainly be­cause he didn’t want to wear a mask. “You know why I hate masks?” he said one evening as we lay on the bed in my bed­room. “Be­cause you can’t see if some­one is happy to see you be­cause you can’t see their smile.”

In a way only a child can, he went on to ex­plain to me why not see­ing peo­ple’s smiles was a loss for him. “Mama, it makes me very sad. I won’t even know if peo­ple are mea­nies,” he said.

I told him that be­ing happy to see peo­ple isn’t only shown with a smile. As much as he wants to see if peo­ple are happy to see him, he has to show it too, I said. And right now, keep­ing oth­ers safe by wear­ing a mask is one of the ways to do it. His words made me think.

For much of the time since the Covid-19 pan­demic out­break be­gan, I’d fo­cused on how it had dras­ti­cally dis­rupted our lives – from re­stric­tions on peo­ple’s move­ment to mil­lions out of work or at risk of los­ing their liveli­hoods.

I wor­ried about what Dr Te­dros Ghe­breye­sus, the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion’s di­rec­tor-gen­eral, said dur­ing a meet­ing of the Emer­gency Com­mit­tee on Covid-19 re­cently. He said Covid-19’s ef­fects will be felt for decades.

In South Africa, I’ve seen how the deep in­equal­i­ties that pre­ceded the pan­demic have be­come more en­trenched. With many chil­dren and work­ers at home, house­hold ex­pen­di­ture in­creased, while the cost of ba­sic foods went up in a coun­try that al­ready had a hunger prob­lem.

A study be­ing con­ducted by re­searchers from three lo­cal uni­ver­si­ties, which in­cludes a sur­vey in­ves­ti­gat­ing the so­cioe­co­nomic im­pact of the pan­demic and the lock­down, has found that chronic poverty and unem­ploy­ment deep­ened dur­ing this pe­riod.

These have been the big so­ci­etal and sys­temic prob­lems that have been wor­ry­ing me.

Per­son­ally, like most peo­ple, I have not been spared the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of this pan­demic – both di­rectly and in­di­rectly. I know peo­ple who have lost their lives, lost their par­ents, or lost their jobs or their ways of ek­ing out a liv­ing.

In my mind, these were the sig­nif­i­cant losses, and any­thing else – such as con­cerns about de­cid­ing whether or not the kids go back to school – felt too small and self­ish. Even wor­ry­ing about who would be their le­gal guardian should some­thing hap­pen to me felt in­signif­i­cant, when so many peo­ple have lost par­ents and grand­par­ents. But then, through that sim­ple ex­change with my child about masks and how not be­ing able to see peo­ple’s smiles was a loss, I was able to recog­nise that even small losses were losses.

My child’s words in­spired me to give my­self per­mis­sion to feel sad about them and even grieve, too. Like griev­ing the changes in the way I phys­i­cally re­late to other peo­ple and fear­ing whether, af­ter this, I would al­ways re­coil in hor­ror when some­one tried to hug me or shake my hand.

A few days af­ter our con­ver­sa­tion, my child an­nounced that masks didn’t make him as sad as they used to any more. He said that, af­ter speak­ing to me, he now knew that wear­ing a mask could be his way of bring­ing oth­ers hap­pi­ness by keep­ing them safe.

We’ve since been out for many walks and he hap­pily runs to put his mask on, which he has in his favourite colour – pur­ple. It has even be­come one of his favourite things.

This was a timely les­son for me: that it’s okay to feel sad and even grieve for the things that feel too small to be ac­knowl­edged, while also wor­ry­ing about the big things and what oth­ers are go­ing through; that it’s im­por­tant to just feel it, so one can let it go as this les­son from my son re­minded me, so the en­ergy can be put to bet­ter use on the more press­ing is­sues.

My son showed me that ac­knowl­edg­ing our sad­ness and grief can help us move on and keep liv­ing as best we can in this new nor­mal.

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