Once upon a time, in a country not so far away, a new terror seized the land. Invisible and undetected, a new respiratory virus had entered the country, and spread silently. It was wintertime, and at first no one noticed anything out of the ordinary, because in winter the people expected coughs and colds, and for the unlucky few, ‘flu and even untimely death. Then the rumours started, of a novel mutant oriental virus escaping (the conspiracy theorists went further, and said it was deliberately released, most likely by Bill Gates) into the wild, of health services in other counties collapsing, and, in time, of excess deaths at home. Behind the scenes, the ministers in the high majority low wit government started bed wetting on an industrial scale, but in public they maintained it was business as normal.
For a brief while, it was business as normal — until two calamitous events. A dodgy numerologist dialled up some numbers, and published a dossier of despair, forecasting hundreds of thousands of deaths if nothing was done. A few nervous types woke up, and started to smell the formalin. And then the second calamity struck. Billy Bunter, the Prime Minister, caught the virus himself, and was ill enough to need hospitalisation. By the time he was ready for discharge, he was a changed man. Hollow in face and sallow in complexion, he faced the people and told them the days of laissez faire had ended; today the lockdown begins.
Across the country, business as normal became business as abnormal. The economy started to dive, like a kamikaze pilot. The people, at first afraid, became terrified of other people, and willingly embraced the stay home order — what’s a little loss of liberty to gain a little safety? Nor did public services escape. Across the land, school classrooms and hospital wards fell silent as children were sent home, and non-essential patients were discharged like grapeshot into unsuspecting care homes. Before long the country was as if it was Narnia, under the spell of the White Witch. Stillness was everywhere, a once bustling nation silenced by fear.
And yet, for some doctors, chiefly of the hand wringing and bed wetting tendency, even this was not enough. Pained to the quick by their inability to quell this most terrible of pandemics, they grasped at straws in their desperation, and before long hatched a plan. A phoenix arising from the ashes of the bonfire of the straw men, the cry went up, “Masks for all, and all for masks!” As the masked phoenix arose, the economy on kamikaze autopilot flashed briefly past, the ever louder scream of its descent into oblivion unheard.
Before very long, the country divided into two tribes, the maskers and the anti-maskers. The former were more numerous, by a long way, and while most members of the mask tribe were feckless sheep who did what they were told, there emerged within the tribe a militant tendency, who appointed themselves as the mask police, with a national duty to eliminate the mask refuseniks. Where once the brown shirts wore arm bands, the mask police now wore masks, and found them very much to their liking. The mask became a badge of both honour and obedience, and as time went by the mask police also realised the mask had other, more sinister uses. Officers of the self appointed mask police soon realised the masks not only made the wearer anonymous, they also had a savage life of their own, that protected the hidden wearer from the niceties of social convention. The decent into madness and savagery had begun.
Or, as William Golding had it in Lord of the Flies:
“He knelt, holding the shell of water. A rounded patch of sunlight fell on his face and a brightness appeared in the depths of the water. He looked in astonishment, no longer at himself but at an awesome stranger. He spilt the water and leapt to his feet, laughing excitedly. Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled them. He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.”
Golding’s Lord of the Flies may be an allegory, but the attacks by the self appointed mask police on innocent non-maskers are all too savagely real.