To be real PPE; Provenance, Parallel, & Ersatz

In the early weeks of the Covid-19 outbreak, most forms of in-person retail experienced a shock.  While some were deemed inessential, and closed, others saw immediate runs on a small set of goods, certain food items, and perhaps most notably hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, and all forms of disposable face masks.  At the same time internet shopping, in general, exploded beyond the point of supply chains’ capacity and infrastructure to perform functionally during shelter-in-place orders across the U.S.  While brick and mortar stores quickly sold out of the same highly sought after items, internet retailers, and their supply chains in turn, became the leading source for essential “PPE” -Personal Protective Equipment (or “PPE”).  Although this term was unfamiliar to most until a few months ago, it has moved from the lexicon of occupational safety in industrial, medical, and law enforcement settings to the truly “personal.” As such it has become the name for a set of items that speak urgently to the fears and grief of ordinary people. 

With the pandemic outbreak and expert guidance on how to prevent it spreading coupled with the devastating loss of life it is completely understandable why the global demand soared for face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, sprays, wipes, goggles, and face-shields purchased retail by private citizens.  In this context, where personal safety is at risk, a new trend is manifesting itself in a burgeoning and lucrative market.  In sort, a perfect storm has arisen for the market in 1.) Scarcity of essential products in the marketplace. 2.) Increased online shopping on platforms allowing third party-sellers because of imperative health concerns and 3.) The need of many isolated and out of work consumers to get necessities at reasonable prices or get them at all.  In such conditions it is important to distinguish the important difference between actual counterfeits and products that just happen to be sold out of the price control and fixing schemes of mega brands and conglomerates.  These circumstances have created a unique constellation of conditions that highlight the complex nature of “real” branded commodities in the US market.  

The explosion of demand for PPE in online retail casts light onto the complexity of the supply chains which serve online retail shoppers more generally. The felt stakes of buying “real” PPE draw our attention to the uncertainty of “realness” of branded goods purchased online. In fact, the “realness” of retail goods is not a straightforward story about ‘genuine’ and ‘counterfeit’ (though it may be presented as such). Rather, online retail is served by a set of pathways of goods whose “realness” is not physical or functional properties, but properties of histories of circulation and of legal regimes (Appadurai, 1986). People who operate in this market, and those adjacent to it refer to these commodities – which function, but are not quite “real” in some sense – as “grey market” goods. 

The existence of a grey market depends on the conditions under which multinational corporate brands operate. Under normal conditions, brand owners (like 3M) attempt to control pricing at different levels in various regions of the world to maximize profits and exploit differences in purchasing power parity.  They have created opportunities for arbitrage further down the various supply chains in these regions.  Trade naturally ensues between these supply chains via parallel channels, as products are diverted from one regional market to another all over the world in the so-called grey market.  Take the “respirator face mask” as a case study. Among the most sought after PPE is the 3M brand, NIOSH approved N95 Mask, designed to filter very small particles from the air. Because Covid-19 is spread in airborne droplets, it seems sensible to consumers to spend on top quality masks, and due to the breakdown in retail markets, supply is nowhere near demand, and the normal equilibrium price no longer applies. This is a situation in which a lot of profit can be made for those with access to reasonable substitute goods.  As retail and wholesale prices of the 3M N95 mask sky-rocketed, counterfeit 3M or knock-off copycat versions of the mask as well as trade in authentic 3M masks that come from alternate supply channels have flooded online retail marketplaces like Amazon and ebay.  

It is useful to distinguish three different and distinct 3M N95 masks available to consumers in need in the current online retail market: 1.) The first type is “real,” a mask sold through the manufacturer’s authorized distributor for a given region.  For example, 3M N95 masks purchased at a Home Depot in Kansas City.  This type is the most “authentic” not because of any specific material quality, but because it has the verifiable provenance of being sold through authorized agents, wholesalers, and retailers such as Home Depot. However, this type is completely sold out everywhere and unavailable to customers due to breakdown in supply chains:

2.) The second type of mask being sold online is the true counterfeit or knock-off ersatz version.  Some of these are a counterfeit 3M brand with visible and markedly different product quality and packaging and some of these just are just knock-offs 3M “style” N95.  I am sure that these knock-offs do provide some protection as a face mask, but their certification as protecting against 95% of particulates and their NIOSH approval is likely not trustworthy and possibly forged: 

3.) The third type of mask differs from the first in only one way: it lacks the provenance of type one masks. It was produced in the same factories and to the same specifications as masks of the first type, but is not sold by a licensed distributor. In this sense, the third type of mask is as genuine as the first type in its manufactured quality according to the strictest specifications mandated by 3M, only it was diverted from the “authorized” channels, bought and distributed by re-sellers.  Other than the fact that it lacks the chain of sales approved by the brand owners, it is identical in quality and kind to the first type.  Perhaps fortunately for both consumers and retailers alike, this third type is available for consumers to meet their PPE needs, offered by third-party sellers on platforms such as eBay and Alibaba:

Because of my own personal experience adjacent to the parallel trade and grey market retail space, I have watched both the explosion in sales of masks of types two and three with great interest.  I have also followed press discussions of these goods, noting emergent discussions about “realness” and “fakeness” of goods, and the concerns they raise.  Interestingly, many commentators erroneously conflate the “black market, ersatz” second type of mask with the “grey market, parallel traded” third type of mask.

How is it the case that the real counterfeits ersatz masks are conflated with masks that differ only from the “real” ones because they took a different route — ebay, not Home Depot — from the same producer to the consumer.  In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Berard, 2020) industry expert Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh discussed the problem of illicit brand name goods as “very, very, very hard to fight.” In so doing he distinguished only two kinds of goods, ‘real’ and ‘fake.’ He grouped both the grey market and the black market of outright counterfeit in explanations of so-called illicit supply chains. In the same article, the author mentions that the Department of Justice has committed to fight this problem by investigating and prosecuting Coronavirus related fraud. However, part of the reason these investigations are so difficult is that, while the definition of “real, licit” brand name goods (our type one) is clear, yet many cases under investigation involve parallel market trade goods (our type three).  When type three grey market goods are sold, no fraud or counterfeit has occurred because the grey market is not the black market. As soon as they enter consumers’ hands, these goods are physically indistinguishable from their ‘licit’ cousins.  The parallel trade goods simply do not have the provenance the brand owners would prefer.

In following posts in this series I will investigate how multiple coincidences in the present state of the market have drawn greater legal and popular attention to the confusing status of grey market goods and parallel supply chains.


Appadurai, A. (1986). The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Berard, Y. (2020, April 15). Desperate for supplies, some hospitals turn to ‘gray market’. Retrieved April 30, 2020, from–regional/desperate-for-supplies-some-hospitals-turn-grey-market/QsVC3wF2IUL7QhgYfncyEO/

euphemism Uncategorized

The Game Grumps Go Viral

transcript timestamp: 30:01

At the end of the first installment of the Game Grumps’ Super Mario Galaxy 2 playthrough the hosts, Arin Hanson and Dan Avidan, change the subject to a seeming nonsequitur: the Backstreet Boys. The two discuss the Backstreet Boys reunion tour at length, warning their fans to stay safe from it, avoid getting tickets, and send support for those recovering from the tour. Why, you might ask, are the Game Grumps taking so much time to talk about the Backstreet Boys tour,  just to warn people away from it? You would be in good company. As one member of the Game Grumps fandom (called the Lovelies, located primarily on Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit) notes: 

Let’s take a closer look at this strange discussion about the Backstreet Boys reunion tour [timestamp 30:01]:

Dan: Oh! and it goes without saying, um, stay home stay safe from, Backstreet Boys tour, and uh, if you already have tickets to the Backstreet Boys reunion tour-

Arin: [laughing]

Dan: uh, we love you and we’re sending you our best and uh, hopefully you’ll have a nice and quick recovery-

Arin: [laughing] from the-

Dan: from the tour. Okay bye [makes kissing noise]

Arin: But make sure after that tour experience, you stay inside 

Dan: Yes, you’re, you’re gonna wanna really sit around-

Arin: process it

Dan: and think about what you just saw on that stage

Arin: And you really don’t wanna get anyone else excited about the Backstreet Boys tour, because the moment, if you went to that tour and you share that experience with somebody, they’re gonna get tickets.

Though opaque at first, fans quickly understood that this conversation is not about the Backstreet Boys at all, but about the coronavirus. It’s an interesting choice for a euphemism for a virus causing a global pandemic, given that it’s an incredibly niche metaphor. It’s not hyper-nationalist like the war metaphor2 various politicians have mobilized, nor is it common outside of the Game Grumps fandom. Beside Dan and Arin, Lovelies have been utilizing this strange euphemism as well. The opacity of the euphemism may be exactly their point, however. The Game Grumps’ mobilization of “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour” sheds light on a phenomenon driving the rapid innovation of euphemism and in-group terminology on social video platforms like YouTube and TikTok: demonetization. It was demonetization that led Backstreet Boys to “go viral” (forgive me) for Game Grumps. 

To understand the history of the Backstreet Boys reunion tour as a euphemism, you need to understand demonetization. To understand demonetization, you must understand how regular people (“content creators”) make money by posting videos on YouTube. Most people know that creators make money on YouTube through advertising. Most people (even creators) don’t know exactly how this works.  

Anyone can post videos on YouTube and create a channel to which others can subscribe. Getting advertising revenue is not as straightforward. YouTube has what is called the Youtube Partner Program (YPP), which creators can apply to once they have reached 1,000 subscribers and have “more than 4,000 valid public watch hours1 in the last 12 months” (“minimum eligibility requirements”). Membership in the YPP is required for YouTube videos to be “monetized,” which means they have targeted ads attached to them. Ad revenue is split between YouTube, the advertizer, and finally the creator.

Membership in the YPP has several requirements, one of which is a strict adherence to YouTube’s “Community Guidelines.” All videos uploaded to YouTube must technically follow these rules, but they’re especially strict for monetized content creators. If you are not a member of the YPP, violations of the guidelines may lead to your video being removed. If you are a member, stricter guidelines affect the type and amount of ads—and therefore the revenue—that your video receives. 

To earn revenue, YPP content must meet the much more specific and limiting  “Advertiser-friendly Content Guidelines” rather than the Community Guidelines. Both Community and Advertiser-friendly Guidelines are enforced not by humans who watch videos, but by an algorithm—an automated system triggered by certain words, phrases, images, or motifs. Videos that the YouTube algorithm determines are breaking the Advertiser-friendly Content Guidelines can be categorized as “limited ads” or “no ads,” and automatically assigned fewer ads or none at all, dramatically decreasing creators’ earnings from those videos. This system motivates YPP creators to avoid certain words, phrases, images or motifs that are known to be picked up by the algorithm and result in demonetization.

YouTube can withhold advertising (and revenue) from videos that don’t meet community guidelines because they contain sexually explicit language or hate speech, for example. But how is this tied to Game Grumps’ decision to call the coronavirus “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour”? 

A specific section of the Advertiser-friendly Guidelines, entitled “controversial issues and sensitive events” (Advertiser-friendly content guidelines), suggests that the algorithm changes in an attempt to block not only offensive or pornographic content, but also content related to recent news and events. These are defined as “topics that may be unsettling for our users and are often the result of human tragedy”; content including mentions of these events will be demonetized “even if the content is purely commentary or contains no graphic imagery” (Advertiser-friendly content guidelines).

On March 11, 2020, YouTube made an official statement declaring that “the coronavirus situation is considered a ‘sensitive event’” and that they will only be “enabling ads for content discussing the coronavirus on a limited number of channels” (Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) updates). This wording, like most of YouTube’s content policy, is confusing. 

The news caused extreme panic within the content creator community. After this point, no one knew exactly which words would trigger the algorithm and cause videos to get demonetized, so creators were avoiding mentioning the virus at all. As Brad Leone—a member of the popular cooking magazine turned YouTube channel “Bon Appétit”—said: “Y’know things are a little different, y’know, underneath the quarantine. I don’t know if I can say the Q-word. Are we saying the Q-word?” (The Bon Appétit Test Kitchen is Cooking at Home). Afraid of being demonetized, creators quickly developed novel ways of talking about the only thing anyone was really talking about in mid-March 2020: the pandemic and its effects on daily life. Thus, the Backstreet Boys reunion tour went viral. 

The Game Grumps are only one creator who have been coming up with novel ways to talk about the coronavirus in order to ensure their videos continue to receive revenue from targeted ads. Google keeps 32% of ad revenue per video, so for every 100 dollars made on a video, the content creator receives 68 dollars (How Much Do YouTubers Make). The rate at which content creators are paid for ads varies, and they can make anywhere between 3 and 5 dollars for every 1,000 views. Given that the Game Grumps have garnered over a million views [as of June 17th, 2020] on the first installment of their Super Mario Galaxy 2 series, they made anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000+ dollars for this video alone.

The choice to use “the Backstreet Boys reunion tour” as a euphemism for the coronavirus was a choice that made the Game Grumps thousands of dollars. The revenue comes not only from the video discussed above, but also from all of the other videos they’ve published since YouTube announced its policy regarding monetization and COVID-19. YouTubers are forced to make these content decisions with every upload, and have to decide whether censoring themselves in certain circumstances is worth the money. 

Since the initial March 11th announcement, YouTube has updated this policy to include monetization of COVID-19 related content for all creators on the platform, but the damage has been done. Creators are always anxious that their videos will be demonetized due to YouTube’s rigid algorithm, so even with the news that coronavirus content will no longer be demonetized, creators are hesitant to even mention it. YouTube also posted an article including examples of COVID-19 content that don’t meet their Advertiser-friendly Guidelines regarding corona. 

Even with the update, YouTube continues to be deliberately vague in its language regarding content and monetization. For example, one update read that “distressing footage” such as “people visibly sick in a hospital” would be demonitized. In a note at the end of the section, they write that a “fleeting” shot of a hospital or someone coughing would not be demonitized, as long as the shot’s purpose is meant to “provide context to a story” (Monetization update on COVID-19 content). 

This update begs a larger question about what the algorithm is capable of picking up on: can a computer really tell the difference between a “fleeting” shot of a hospital without sick people in it and a hospital shot showing people “visibly sick”? Can an algorithm pick up on a shot meant to “give context to a story”? No matter how many examples YouTube gives regarding monetization, they always include a note reminding creators that “this is not a complete list,” and that regardless they will always have the final say in deciding what has the capacity to be demonetized (Monetization update on COVID-19 content). 

1As with the rest of Youtube’s community guidelines, there’s no definition of “valid public watch hours.” With my knowledge of Youtube’s structure and streaming policies, I assume this refers to the privacy settings on the video (whether it is public, unlisted, or private). Videos must be set to “public” in order to count toward the YPP requirement.

2Martin, E. (1990). Toward an Anthropology of Immunology: The Body as Nation State. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 4(4), 410-426.


Noodle and the Pandemic

  • Cheering for Noodle

In the beginning of April 2020, the slogans #Welcome back! Sesame hot noodles# (#欢迎回来热干面#), #Carry on! Sesame hot noodles# (#热干面加油#) became common on China’s top social media platform. Why was a noodle dish trending now? Why did the noodle dish need all this encouragement? And why was support for one specific noodle dish trending at the same moment as news of Wuhan’s official reemergence after lockdown triggered by the COVID-19 outbreak? The slogans, and comic illustrations of sesame noodles by talented netizens, present an interesting aspect of the ways contemporary Chinese social media name and engage with regional identities. Sesame hot noodle is Wuhan, and cheering for noodle is a way to cheer for a community many know only from the recent news. In this moment, not only talking about, but also drawing and even eating a specific noodle dish become a way to engage with crisis. 

#Cheer for sesame hot noodles              

People’s Daily: “Starting from March. 25th, Wuhan’s public transportation partly resumed. With the epidemic situation increasingly under control, Wuhan has been gradually regaining its vitality.

#After seventy days people finally lined up for sesame hot noodles in Wuhan

Although nothing can really be considered peculiar during this surreal time of unprecedented global public health challenges, the cheerful embrace of a dish found in street stalls and even my cafeteria at Beijing Foreign Studies University  seems incompatible with gloomy headlines and mass mortalities. Pastel images of anthropomorphized bowls of noodles seem even less appropriate to this global moment so it may seem at first glance. Are these signs of people escaping the harsh reality, and indulging themselves in the realm of cuisine? Are they calling out for comfort food? Are people, so desperate to get their minds off the virus for one second, creating a  food craze? None of these are true.. The sudden explosion of the sesame hot noodles food talk is in fact not a manifestation of people departing the pandemic reality, but instead, a mediated way in which they embrace it. This would all make more sense when taken under a linguistic context of metonymic usage of language.  Cheering for sesame noodle is cheering for Wuhan.  

Although it is not at all an ideal way to become famous the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, China, has been thrust into the global spotlight as the early center of the COVID-19 outbreak. Wuhan has never before received this degree of media exposure and attention in the Chinese national consciousness, let alone the universal attention it now receives. As one of the initial hotspots during this outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has been at the center of media coverage and other means of information circulation in China.The popular depiction of Wuhan in the Chinese media draws on the common cultural heritage of the Chinese people as a whole. 

热干面, or Wuhan hot noodles with sesame paste is a traditional dish of Wuhan. Just like New York style pizza is known, produced, and eaten across the US,  Wuhan sesame hot noodle is known nationally as a representative of a specific local cuisine. It has a history in Chinese food culture for 80 years. The dish is distinguished by its unique texture:  the noodles are “dry,” not in a broth like most other Asian-style hot noodle dishes. Many cities in China have emblematic dishes, known locally and even internationally: peking duck in Beijing, hot-pot in Chengdu, and broth dumpling in Shanghai. Most cities and regions have well-known local culinary specialties, and regional food can be one of the most straight-forward cultural symbols.. Though Wuhan’s sesame hot noodle is not as well known outside the country as Beijing’s peking duck, like other regional specialties it is both a delicious food and a means for people who have never been to Wuhan to experience the place. As such it, like other regional foods, is also a way of representing and talking about the region and its people. 

Photo credited to internet

While talk about sesame noodles exploded on the internet in April, and celebrities ate sesame noodles on camera, perhaps as a show of solidarity, a series of soft comic strip illustrations had been developing a cult following since late January. These pastel images, by the artist 陈小桃momo have become one of the most visible and widely circulated examples of the role of sesame hot noodle in discussions of Wuhan’s crisis and recovery.The first of the series of images was initially posted on January 30th on Weibo, one of the biggest social media platforms in China when the COVID-19 situation in Wuhan was most severe. 

All of the images center on an anthropomorphized bowl of sesame noodles, a little human figure with a bowl of sesame noodles in place of a head. In the first image, the little bowl of sesame noodles sits in a hospital bed, masked and with tears swelling up in its eyes. It looks out the window of the hospital room. Outside the window, similar anthropomorphic depictions of foods around the country, each representing a different city or region, cheer for the noodles, holding signs saying “sesame noodles, carry on.” 

The second image was released on March 25th, when the lockdown in the rest of Hubei province was lifted except for Wuhan. In this image, the condition of little sesame noodles has clearly improved.It has gotten back on its feet, leaning towards the window and waving back at the crowd of “food delegates” who appear to have been supporting it this whole time. The cherry blossoms blooming by the window  refer not only to the passage of time during the ciris (winter has passed, and spring has truly come) but also to Wuhan itself, the campus of Wuhan university is famous for its spring cherry blossoms. 

Finally a third image appeared on April 8th, when the lockdown of Wuhan finally terminated. In this image,  the bowl of sesame noodles is finally out of the hospital, now surrounded in a heart-shape circle by all the culinary emissaries   and essential workers who had cared for the noodles during their period of isolation. 

These three images form  a complete narrative, a relationship that is reinforced with  delicate details of meta-images in the second and third entries. A miniature of the first image is placed as a poster on the cubicle’s door in the second drawing; similarly, the second image is contracted on a board that is held up in the third picture by a string of meatballs and a scallion in the back.

“Sesame hot noodles, carry on!”                 “Hubei restarts”                       “Long time no see”

Images credited to 陈小桃momo

Clearly, sesame hot noodles are serving in these images, and in other sites of Chinese popular and social media as a means of representing Wuhan during the crisis. But why? Why not represent Wuhan during this time with cherry blossoms, or renowned local architectures like the yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼)? Why not just use its name? What political, economic, or even cultural forces have led this language of noodles to be so readily accepted as the best way to show support for the capital city of Hubei? I will discuss these in subsequent posts.  

PPE Uncategorized


The box of mailbox masks sits on the floor.
The top of the box is open.

At first glance, there was no way to know the “realness” of the mysterious mailbox masks or their effectiveness at preventing the spread of the covert virus.

One evening in early March, my teenage sister walked to the end of the driveway to check the mailbox. Stuffed inside it was a box of N95 masks. There was no note on the box and no sign of who had left it, and the top of the box was folded together as though it had been opened before. She tucked it under her arm, brought it back in with the rest of the mail, and laid it on the countertop in the kitchen. A few hours later, my mother asked her where these masks had come from. The anonymity of the drop-off felt threatening, echoing the invisibility of the coronavirus that has exposed a world of imperceptible threat. At first glance, there was no way to know the “realness” of the mysterious mailbox masks or their effectiveness at preventing the spread of the covert virus. 

There are many types of masks and other face coverings being used these days as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) against the virus, all of varying degrees of “realness.” Different kinds of PPE have been arriving at our house in various capacities over the last month. These include homemade 3D-printed visors for face shields dropped off on the front porch by our local high school physics teacher; FedEx packages of masks shipped from my dad’s contacts in China; or little baggies of cloth masks given to my mother by her concerned patients. The mailbox masks could be seen as simply another version of these deliveries of PPE, different only because we don’t know who brought them, but they raise the same issue as the others. Even though they are sitting right in front of us, we can not tell if they were “real.” 

The issue of “realness” cropped up the other day when my friend’s mother sent a package of masks from China. She separated the masks she sent into two Ziploc bags. One was for surgical masks to be used to go to the supermarket and around the neighborhood. The other bag she labeled “N95?” because although she had ordered N95s, they came in a box that she thought was not labeled properly. They don’t look like the white and yellow ones I have seen around. I cannot tell just from looking at them whether the masks are “real” or not, and at this point, I’m not even sure what “real” means. My mother says that she can bring the masks to the hospital to be checked for a certain serial number that will confirm whether or not the mask is real, but she doesn’t know the number herself. 

We have been receiving this PPE because our neighbors and friends are trying to donate it directly to healthcare workers and hospitals through my parents, physicians at major hospitals in NYC. Elective procedures at these hospitals have all been cancelled, but emergency and obstetric patients are still being seen. Healthcare workers need to wear PPE when they treat these patients to make sure that they do not contract the disease from those patients whose COVID-19 status is often unknown or may even be positive. At the very beginning of the crisis in NYC, hospitals were dangerously understocked on N95s and other PPE, and the lack of equipment has led to rationing to preserve the safety of healthcare workers and patients alike. 

Although she has accepted other PPE without question, my mother is very suspicious of these mailbox masks because she doesn’t know who gave them to us and they are not labelled in a recognizable package, so she cannot verify their “realness” or safety. She says that maybe someone coughed on them and then put them in the mailbox. My initial reaction is that this sounds paranoid, but there have been recent scandals in my county in which people lick supermarket shopping carts to inspire fear or perform in some sort of Internet challenge. There is such a shortage of N95s at the hospital, however, that she decides to let the masks sit for a week to let any virus potentially remaining on them die, and then she will bring them into the hospital. 

She cannot just bring them to the hospital and distribute them to nurses and doctors, however; first, they have to be examined to determine if they are “real.” The printing on the box says that they are “Disposable N95 Particulate Respirator and Surgical Masks.” These mailbox masks are not from 3M, the most recognizable brand, but they are NIOSH-Approved, 1730 Respirators from Flu Armour. Ordinarily, I would be content with these labels and ratings, even if I don’t really know what they mean, but there has been news that many masks are not actually of good quality, even if they are labeled as such.

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a collective awareness of the invisible dangers present in our world. The virus itself is particularly threatening because it remains a threat for an unknown amount of time on surfaces, emanating from the bodies of our loved ones and neighbors, and even within our own bodies. Any and every interaction with another person could be a moment of contagion and we would never know. Covid-19 contagion is an epistemological problem, and there is no way to ascertain an understanding or full knowledge of the virus. The mask is a sign of that unknowingness, a visible barrier on our faces to protect us from the invisible threat and to protect others from us, as well. In addition to the fear, invisibility, and knowledge related to the virus itself, we also cannot know how “real” or effective is the protection we wear.  

It is interesting to consider the issue of the “realness” of these N95 masks. Since the beginning of the pandemic, N95 masks have been a valuable commodity as they were understood to be the only ones that could filter out the small particles of the virus. People were told to save N95 masks for healthcare workers, while surgical masks and homemade cloth masks were recommended for general use. The justification for this, as I understood it, was that healthcare and other essential workers–who need to remain healthy so that they can continue to work and who are more likely to be vectors of disease to high numbers of other people–need to wear an N95, which has better viral protection. Those who are sheltering in place, however, wear masks to prevent spreading the infection to others, especially because they may be part of the “silent spread.” The CDC says that cloth masks and bandanas are sufficient in this case. Different masks are assigned different purposes, creating a hierarchy with N95s at the top. 

From the beginning, we have easily accepted that N95 masks are the best, but what does this number actually mean? N means “not resistant to oil,” which is important because industrial oils can damage filter performance. 95 means that under careful testing, the mask blocks at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) test particles. These standards compose the rating given only to certain masks, but the rating alone does not guarantee protection. An N95 mask with an improper fit (gapping on the sides, not tight enough on the nose) does not actually provide adequate personal protection. While N95s may block 95% of particles, if those particles can reach the nose and mouth through gaps, the material of the mask doesn’t really matter at all. 

The mailbox N95s still remain in the house. Any contagion that may have been on them is now long dead, but we have not yet ascertained their “realness.”  The NIOSH-Approval seems legitimate, but the masks will still have to be checked and tested before they can be used in a hospital. My father says it’s not even worth it to bring them in because a few of them will be used up during testing for quality. My mother, however, has piled up an assortment of masks from many sources in a bag on the kitchen floor, which she says she’s going to bring to the hospital when supplies get very low again. If there is a second wave, it will be interesting to see if there is as much concern about the “realness” of the masks. 

This post is the first in a short series about PPE and masks in the New York City area.

Julie B. is an undergraduate at Columbia University, majoring in Sustainable Development and concentrating in Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies.