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Nabila Ramdani: masks have dramatically changed daily life

Mask rules have changed daily life in extraordinary ways, says Connexion columnist and award-winning French-Algerian journalist Nabila Ramdani.

Beyond horror and fear the most common reaction to the coronavirus pandemic has been absolute bewilderment. If you consider what life was like a year ago – and especially the everyday freedoms we took for granted – then the current situation is scarcely believable. New social mores are rapidly developing; ones that challenge and disturb in equal measure.

Who could have predicted, for example, that acts of extreme aggression would result from the enforced wearing of masks to protect against the spread of Covid-19? A bus driver died in July following a savage assault carried out by passengers who refused to cover their faces in the city of Bayonne, in south-west France. Knives have been used in similar mask-related attacks on other transport networks around the country, and in bars and restaurants.

Videos posted on social media with alarming frequency in countries including Britain and America show the problem of Mask Rage is an international one. One of the biggest issues is the emphasis being put on people to become unofficial police. It is quite impossible for the authorised forces of law and order to be everywhere, despite the ultimate aim of the masks being to protect health. This means that those who would never normally interfere in the lives of strangers view themselves as have-a-go-heroes, often with disastrous consequences.

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Wild instances due to a wild situation

Frankly bizarre incidents have included staff working for SNCF, France’s national railway company, forcing a man off a high-speed TGV travelling to Nice because he did not want to wear a mask in a stuffy carriage at the height of the August holiday season.

In what sounds like a particularly vindictive retribution, the train personnel left him 470km away from his expected destination “in the middle of nowhere”, according to another passenger. She seemed to be Tweeting about the humiliation along with everybody else heading to the Riviera.

The train bouncers were clearly enjoying making an example of the villain, despite the fact that he could have avoided any action whatsoever by simply holding a baguette or bar of chocolate in one hand. Yes – eating is still allowed on all forms of public transport, and if you’re nibbling away, or even just pretending to be nibbling away, then you are beyond reproach.

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Never mind that the time people are most likely to send spittle and worse flying towards those around them is when they are masticating and drinking – there is no need to mask up if you are consuming anything. Bicycles are another unusual way of avoiding a telling off or worse. It again sounds absurd, but in many parts of France you are not allowed to walk or jog without a mask, but if you are cycling then bare faces are fine.

Such facts are particularly significant when you consider that not wearing masks where required can incur fines of €135. It raises the prospect of people never leaving their homes without a snack or a bike, just in case they run in to a police patrol, or a burly team of SNCF enforcers.

If this appears over comical, it is not meant to. There have been disturbing coronavirus spikes in major French cities over the past few weeks, and it is essential that all precautions are taken to try and keep the disease under control.

There needs to be consistency in all initiatives, however. Mask-wearing standards need to be universal and fair. Just as importantly, there needs to be more of an emphasis on social distancing, which is a far more effective means of preventing contamination than a thin strip of cloth.

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