To mask or not to mask, fandom is the question

Today’s post will be a bit acerbic. I was at my first face to face SF convention yesterday, and am home and still puzzled. Also disappointed.

First, some background. The convention didn’t have a strong policy about masks and etc, and most people chose not to wear masks, especially on the first day. Australians don’t have quite the same personal space as people in the US and Canada (we stand more closely together, quite simply), so whenever I would step back from the maskless, that person would follow me to close the uncomfortable gap and our conversation would turn into a dance. I have taught writers about this dance, but normally to illustrate how different cultures see space differently (my internal ethnohistorian is handy for writers). This dance was about some individuals seeing safety differently, and about different individuals thinking “This thing that affects this person doesn’t apply to me.”

I couldn’t safely go to most of the convention events, because of the COVID policy: I’m one of the COVID-vulnerable. I may not be happy at missing book launches and panels and a whiskey tasting and… everything except the panels I was on and the workshop I gave (I couldn’t even give a reading). I’m not complaining about this, though I missed so many things, because the lack of safety had always been a possibility and I had arranged to help at my writing group’s table whenever I needed space between me and the world. I spent a lot of time at that table.

I was absurdly pleased when one of my old friends stopped for a few minutes to have a chat, because I haven’t seen most of them for so long. I was less pleased when some people, who have been able to pick up their normal social life as soon as lockdown was over, did nothing more than wave as they passed. It felt as if they don’t want me back in their lives. I didn’t have as many people to apologise to as I used to, because of old friends walking right past. The walking stick and the mask taught me who sees disability as a Thing, and who cares about the person, regardless of their physical health.

I explained this to various folks as I sat in my safeish place, because I had to miss lunches and evening programme and… so much. I even had to skip the panels I’d normally go to for research. I’ve sorted the research thing by finding another way to get that material, and I joked about the situation. I didn’t tell everyone I was missing doing research. What I commented on was that panellists who were friends didn’t have an academic expert staring evilly at them when they talked about certain subjects.

If all this was expected (not joyous, but expected) what’s troubling me, then?

Someone I’ve known for years told me that, if I wanted to have things set up differently, I should do the work and be on the committee. For eight years I was on the committee and did the work. Illness intervened, and so did the need to earn income despite that illness. I do committee work these days, but I frame it around my capacity. The person who told me that I needed to provide the solution knew I’m not well. His implication was that if I don’t provide a solution, then I should either be silent or get out.

I’m going to take this to Accessible Arts (a body for making the Arts more accessible, obviously) because its advisory body is one of the committees I’m on, and the COVID-vulnerable present a new group of accessibility  issues that need to be addressed.  The problem is a deep one and needs addressing at a number of levels. Should events in our COVID-shaped world be accessible to people with impaired immune systems and who are COVID-vulnerable in other ways? If they should, is it up to the person who can’t do the things to do all the work to transform the difficult into the possible, or does the wider community have an obligation to let us share events with them?

This problem is related to other issues in Australian fandom. How do our fandoms deal with minorities? I know the Jewish side and have been on committees (how many committees should I be be on, anyhow?) to try to get the calendars of non-Christian Australians consulted before the dates for events have been picked. This was triggered by things that happened to Australian Jews at SF conventions. I missed going to the award ceremony for my own book because it was on Rosh Hashanah (a friend had to take a screen shot of my name on the projection screen), and a convention once had a Jewish guest of honour who was on programme (in the initial draft) on Day of Atonement. Jewish SF folks are all different in our observance levels, and how she spent her Day of Atonement wasn’t my decision to make – it was hers, so she was taken off programme items that day and asked if she needed anything to support whatever she decided to do.

What I’m saying with these examples is that every accessibility need is unique to that person, but there are some things any orgasising committee should be considering in advance. Calendars, food, transport – these are some things are not hard to factor into early decisions that will work wonderfully at the convention later on. All the work for Yom Kippur could have been avoided if the committee had asked that guest the year before or after, or changed the date of the convention, or, simply, explained the situation to the guest when she was invited and worked with her on suitable progamming from that point.

It’s a process thing. Because of this, anyone should be able to handle it. Someone with a particular vulnerability shouldn’t have to serve on all the committees related to every single function they might want possibly to to ever go to.

Also, the person telling me this had just spent 2 ½ days in close proximity to many others, in a weekend where there were sporting grand finals and people were travelling a lot, where there are the annual tourist-driven flower festivals in this region and more. Whether he wore a mask or not is his choice, just as how the guest of honour spent her Yom Kippur was hers. But if he put his own opinion above my safety when he said this while leaning in towards me, maskless, he wasn’t just saying that I had to serve on all the committees if I wanted to attend panels or meet favourite author or even join a queue for signing (I have a hardback of Shelley Parker-Chan’s book and I bought the hardback at the convention thinking I could get it signed – but I never saw her without a crowd of people so my hardback is signature-free and one day I will meet Parker-Chan and talk about history with her, but none of those days were at Conflux), he was saying that he, himself, thought I was making a mountain out of a molehill.

Other people took the situation seriously. They had masks with them and put them on whenever they came close to someone wearing one. People like me became a “time to put the mask on for a bit” sign. This was such a good approach.  They wouldn’t play that COVID minuet. They would stand at a safe distance. This includes the organisers. The organisers also put a pile of masks on the front desk, for anyone who hadn’t thought about COVID. Most other people who wanted to talk with me (not the one who said that her doctor would be angry with her for not wearing a mask) or attend my workshop put one on. At the workshop, I explained that I couldn’t take the mask off unless the participants wore one, and only one person rebelled and it was my my decision to take my mask off for those who needed to see my face. We had the door open, because of that, however, and the maskless participant sat next to the door and about 2 metres away from me. Compromises are part of living in a community, and many people at Conflux were clever and kind and paid attention to what could be done to keep everyone safe and still have the freedom of mostly chatting maskless. (I didn’t take the mask off for panels, which was a problem for those who needed to lipread, but the rooms were not well ventilated and most people didn’t wear masks and… it wasn’t safe. This is one of the times when there is no good decision.

Working together to ensure everyone’s safety is what the committee was doing and it was our first time back together since the bushfires (so since 2019) and… I’m as responsible for COVID-safety as anyone else. The thing is… the thing is…. (this is hard to say) there is a bit of an Australian attitude that people who hurt are the ones responsible for making sure that no-one else hurts. This causes so much pain for people who are trapped by domestic violence, or the women who were molested in Parliament House, or those who are ill or those who have to deal with racists. “You’re the one who sees the problem, you’re the one who should resolve it” is not a kind approach to life. Nor is it viable. It was why I had to leave the public service when the antisemitism made my life untenable: it wasn’t me who needed to change behaviour to get rid of the antisemitism, it was the bigots.

If a bridge is falling down, you don’t ask the person who lets people know that there is a problem to fix it, you find an engineer. The engineer in this case is the guidance from the government about masks, about safe distance, and that certain behaviours will spread COVID.

Australia is a wonderful country in many ways, but the attitude that the person who most experiences the problem is the one who should fix it is not one of them.

2 thoughts on “To mask or not to mask, fandom is the question

  1. I went to worldcon this year and it was a fairly truncated one. I simply did not go to any room parties at all despite one of them being for a friend’s book launch. I simply did not feel comfortable (even with mask) being in a hotel room closely packed with other bodies. Turns out they had more than 60 reported covid cases at the con so that was a wise-ish decision, in retrospect. But I severely limited my exposure to large groups of people other than panels I was actually on and facing an audience. Everyone was pretty good at masking up though I have to say that. Still. it was scary.

    1. So our experience was similar except that my convention was smaller and most people didn’t wear masks. I would rather be alone in my discomfort than right in this respect.

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