The masks are covering people’s smiles
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.