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Fires and Masks



I used to love to visit the Fire Museum in Tokyo. There you could see the traditional irezumi tattoos of firefighters along with models of the tight rows of wooden houses that made up towns in Edo Japan. Woodblock prints and dioramas showed how the firefighters, roving bands of tough guys, would, instead of throwing water on a burning building, work like a demolition pit crew to tear down the structures on either side of the blaze and stop its spread. It was a marvel to me, a wild solution that could only work in a community that prioritized the group over the individual.

Not that I recommend the method. After all, Japan switched to firetrucks and hoses long ago. But it still moves me to think of the accepted sacrifice. Outside, in offices and schools, on the buses and subways, lots of people in Japan, like other Asian countries, wear masuku, surgical masks. I did, too. It's not a practice born of fear, but consideration, priotizing the community over yourself. If you have a cold, you put on the masuku before leaving the house so you don't get anybody sick. It's the decent thing to do when packed together on a train, shopping narrow grocery store aisles or sitting side by side in a meeting. When my children sniffled, we sent them toddling off to school with little masks decorated with cartoon trains and Hello Kitty. We didn't want anyone to think our family selfish or inconsiderate, that we thought our comfort and convenience, or our vanity, was more important than everyone's health.

Wearing a mask to protect your fellow community members is a practice that, unlike Japan's 17th century firefighting, I often wish we'd adopt in America. Now seems like a good time.

The N-95 respirator masks that provide more effective protection from COVID-19 are in short supply. What we have needs to go to frontline workers in hospitals, not only because they're at higher risk, but because we'll need as many of them on their feet as this pandemic continues. Not hoarding them for your personal safety is a sacrifice for the greater good. Donations of 3-D printed face shields and the scores of crafty people sewing surgical masks for hospital staff are heartening, too. The cloth masks aren't ideal but they are what protection can be offered from worried, hopeful folks with sewing machines and online patterns, and that's worth a great deal.

While standard surgical face masks and their homemade counterparts won't prevent you from contracting COVID-19 if exposed, they could help you avoid spreading it, keeping virus-laden droplets and aerosols from spewing into the air to be inhaled by others. They're a little uncomfortable to breathe and talk through. People may react defensively seeing them — after all, here wearing a mask is a means to avoid being infected, not to avoid infecting others. But if you can find or make a DIY fabric one to wear when you're out of your home, the inconvenience is a small sacrifice (certainly smaller than watching your house torn down). Act like you have the virus, goes the current wisdom, and try not to spread it.

We are going to need to put one another first to get through what's coming. Wearing DIY masks could be a practical part of that effort, along with staying home if at all possible and frequent, thorough handwashing. There's no solid evidence, no reason to believe we're on an easier path than other countries before us, like Italy, where makeshift morgues are at capacity with the dead. We are already seeing hospitals struggling to keep up with a crashing wave of COVID-19 patients in New York. I want to believe we're somewhat insulated in Humboldt but history has shown us remoteness means delay more than exemption. Over the weekend, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. passed 2,500.

When the worst of it — the emergency, anyway — has passed, there will be grief and guilt. Look to countries just barely emerging from the pandemic and you'll see it. We can enter that aftermath knowing we did everything we could to protect one another or not. Did we stay home as much as we possibly could? Did we shield our most vulnerable? Did we bend the rules for convenience or pleasure? Did we place each other's safety above the comforting illusion of normalcy? Doing all we can is how we prepare for this emergency but also what comes next, when we will have to put our community and our home back together.

On one wall of the Fire Museum there was a light up map of Japan with buttons that you could press to show what burned over stretches of time. From the Edo Period to World War II, seemingly everything was on fire at one time or another. It was heartbreaking to stand in the glow of it. But then you turned around to look through the windows and out into the street, the rebuilt city full of people. I think about it all the time, especially as I watch the daily news about this pandemic. Even if everything burns, we can come back.

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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