Six hours into a 14-hour flight and I finally managed to fall asleep. Twenty minutes later I was awake again, tapped forcefully on the shoulder by a flight attendant asking me to put my mask on.
Such is the way of the world now. Some airlines proudly announce that wearing masks is now optional. Others won’t let you board without one, and crew prowl up and down the aisles looking to pounce on anyone who might dare let their mask slip.
I recently took a train from Italy to Switzerland. On the Italian side of the border we were told masks were mandatory, and stern-faced conductors made sure passengers didn’t forget. Italy is one of the few European countries that is still trying to enforce mask wearing.
But as soon as the train crossed the border, and Swiss guards took over, it was a very different matter.
“You are in Switzerland, you do not need to wear a mask,” one Swiss guard proudly told me. About half the passengers kept their masks on, but everyone else happily removed their Covid protection.
Covid numbers are rising sharply all around the world as Omicron subvariants wreak havoc on health systems. Almost three million new Covid-19 cases were reported last week in Europe, which made up nearly half of all new cases globally. Hospitalisations doubled during the same week, and nearly 3000 people are dying each week of Covid.
The World Health Organisation is warning European countries they must look at introducing mask mandates, or run the risk of overwhelming their health system once the Northern Hemisphere summer is over.
But like Australia, there is little appetite for enforcing mask wearing in most of Europe and North America. Unlike Australia, Covid has practically slipped out of the news cycle north of the equator. When Covid fatigue sets in in this part of the world, it really sets in.
In Europe large percentages of the population have had Covid. Some have had it twice. A friend of mine caught it for the third time two weeks ago. There really is a feeling that, yes, it might make you feel pretty crook for a few days, but you will recover and things will be back to normal reasonably quickly.
The problem with having long lockdowns is people really started to appreciate the freedoms they once enjoyed. And the minute the floodgates were flung wide open, people bolted through the door, determined never to go back.
Wearing a mask indoors seems to be a no-brainer. But the Barr Government is right not to mandate it. People need to take responsibility for their own actions, and you would hope most in the ACT appreciate you are not just protecting yourself by wearing a mask.
Most readers of this column will have loved ones in their lives that fall into the “vulnerable” category, the people you really do not want to catch Covid. So while we would love to be leading the carefree maskless pre-Covid life, do we really want to be the person who takes the risks that could lead to your loved one getting very sick, or even worse?
All available evidence suggests the riskiest place to be when Covid is running rampant is indoors. Even though mask wearing is not mandatory, shop owners are well within their rights to demand customers wear masks. They can also demand staff wear masks.
And in the end, customers will vote with their feet. If they feel their favourite shoe shop is not safe, they’ll go elsewhere. On the flipside, customers who feel agitated about having to wear a mask may well choose to take their hard-earned coin around the corner.
But I’m betting for the sake of maybe wearing a mask for five minutes, most will swallow their pride and lump it. After all, it’s not really that difficult is it?
Ross Solly is a broadcaster, journalist and political observer.