There is a scene in Ciro Guerra’s film El abrazo de la serpiente [Embrace of the Serpent, 2015] that I particularly enjoyed. The indigenous shaman, Karamakate, tells the German ethnologist: ‘Leave all that stuff. They are only things.’ The western ethnologist replies quite irritated to the shaman: ‘No. They are not only things.’ We, Westerners, are surrounded by things. Our excessive consumerist culture swallows us. Yet, we keep on accumulating more and more objects. We have experienced an exponential increase in product production and product waste in the last century. Ours is a proper ‘Throwaway living’ – as defined by Life Magazine in 1955. The cover of the magazine displayed a picture of a family throwing disposables into the air – waste saves (housewives) time!
Still not fully conscious of the dramatic and long-lasting consequences waste has for the environment (and for our health), we daily produce tons of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has not changed that behaviour. After government and medical advice to use face masks, we added them to our usual littered material. We find these new and trendy additions on the streets, along the road or by the litter bins.
We can even make an archaeological typology of the different types of face masks on the streets. The surgical face mask –different shades of blue or green (a, b, c)–, the disposable respirators –such as FFP2 (d)–, and the reusable face coverings either bought or home-made (e).
There is also a chronology (stratigraphy in due course) that marks the temporality of the face masks’ disposal. The more washed and ruined the mask, the earliest it was discarded.
In the meantime, face masks have also become fashionable, successfully embracing fashion consumerism and escalating our culture of waste. The rate of waste is such that soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the ocean. We seem not to remember the shortage of masks months ago in most western countries – not to talk about the on-going shortage in many other world-poor regions because we are outspending them. Face coverings and gloves are the new debris of our ‘Throwaway living.’ The material fragments of global inequality that the pandemic is greatly heightening around the world. While in other countries people do not even have access to clean water and soap, in the West discarded masks flood our streets. This is true especially in areas where rich (and mostly white) people can afford to buy and throw away sanitary materials every day. The archaeology of this pandemic will not need years (less so centuries) for the study of its stratigraphy. The archaeology of COVID-19’s –its consumerist culture, global inequalities, and massive waste– is now.