I went to see my doctor the other day.
“I am worried about this swine flu that’s going around,” I told him.
The doctor backed away and hurriedly put on a face mask.
“Have you been to Mexico recently ?”, he asked me, speaking through his mask. “Have you come in contact with any infected person?”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that”, I assured him. “But everyone’s talking about it, and every time I read the alarmist newspaper headlines I panic. Or at least I can see they want me to panic, even when they are asking me not to.”
“Oh, is that all?”, he said, removing his mask. “Yes, of course you should not panic..”
“And I sneezed three times yesterday,” I continued. “I thought it was pollen, but..”
“You should buy a mask”, he said urgently. “We sell them at the pharmacy for $25 each.”
I hesitated. “But will a mask really protect me from the virus? Aren’t viruses microscopic particles? Can’t they easily pass through the mask?”
“Well, for $25 you can’t get virus protection,” he sneered. “All you’ll get is the feeling that you are protected”.
I wanted to tell him that even my laptop was luckier, it could get virus protection for free.
“If you want reasonable protection”, he continued, “you should buy our $150 mask, the N-95 respirator. That will offer better protection.”
I did not know I had walked into a mask showroom.
“How much better protection?” I asked sceptically.
“Well, it will stop the swine virus 50% to 90% of the time. Or maybe a little less than that, since those respirators were used for SARS, and this virus seems to even smaller than the SARS virus, but you know, it should certainly work 50% of the time.”
“But doctor, that’s a 50% chance I can get infected even with a mask! All I need is one virus to get infected !”
He looked at me for a moment as if sizing me up. “If you want real protection, then you must buy our $500 HEPA filter mask”, he said. “Like one of these,” he said, showing his own mask. “They are the best.”
The mask covered nearly his whole face and made him look like he was about to go snorkeling any moment.
“Are they good?”, I asked, relieved. “I will wear them all day then.”
“Umm, that’s not possible,” he said, looking a little uncomfortable. “You can’t wear them more than fifteen minutes at a time. After that, they cause extreme discomfort to the respiratory function.”
“You mean I will stop breathing?” I asked.
By now he was eyeing me in dislike. “No, unfortunately they can’t do that to you,” he said. “All they can try is make it inconvenient for you to breathe. See, the mask’s job is try to prevent viruses from entering. Breathing, or not, is your choice. Tell me, which drug carries no side effects?”
I wondered if I was being too finicky in worrying about the side effects.
“Why don’t they just put these masks on the pigs ?”, I asked. “Then none of us will need to wear any masks.”
“Ah, but pigs don’t get swine flu,” the doctor said. “Only humans do.”
The clerk at the pharmacy smiled at me brightly as I came out of the doctor’s office. “Have you decided which mask to buy?” she asked.
“No, I think I will not buy any mask for now, thanks,” I said, as I tried to back away towards the exit.
Her face became stern. “You have to wear some mask. Any protection is better than no protection,” she said. “Look at those young men,” she said, pointing to two men in ski masks who had just entered, and were walking towards her. “They are being wise. If you don’t have a mask on, that is very risky. You should be very afraid.”
I apologized again for taking grave risks, and turned to leave. As I was leaving, I noticed that the men in ski masks were waving some object in the air. I thought I heard the sales clerk scream.
But she had so many masks with her, she surely couldn’t be afraid. She was probably screaming in joy. Those wise masked men were probably offering to sell her their gun. But I couldn’t wait to see how it all ended, I left.
P.S. Read this Slate article on masks.