On the one hand faceless and frightening, on the other a symbol of heroic resistance to deadly viruses, here’s how the hazmat suit became a symbol of our times
They tread slowly, gracelessly, at a plodding pace. With their aspirators they could be astronauts, of this earth but detached from it, sucking clean air through umbilical tubes. They comfort and alarm in equal measure, these slow-moving harbingers of sickness and death. Intellectually, you know they are there to help, to protect. But the hazmat suit creates a divide. There is the person who wears it and the person they need protecting from. You never want to be on the wrong side of a hazmat suit, because if you are, you know something’s gone horribly wrong.
As the coronavirus pandemic spreads around the world, images of medical personnel in hazmat suits have become commonplace in newspapers and news bulletins. But it Is not just medics who are donning protective wear. A fortnight ago, Naomi Campbell posted a video in which she explained her motivations for flying in a hazmat suit, accessorised with a Burberry cape. Last week, before the nationwide lockdown, activists in hazmat suits protested outside Downing Street about the government’s sluggish response to coronavirus. Personal protective equipment (PPE) in general has been high up the news agenda, as beleaguered NHS staff warn the government that an inadequate supply is putting frontline health workers at risk.