Wearing face masks in Asia

A health official checks temperature of incoming passengers at Suvarnabhumi Airport, Bangkok, Thailand on 9 March 2020 (AFP)

When Asia was in the thick of Covid-19, to not wear a mask in public was seen as inconsiderate. It’s like how we might see others who fail to sneeze into their own sleeve if we’re not quick on the draw, and just letting the germs fly in the middle of a crowd. Disgusting right?

Personally, I have never been one for wearing face masks but I’m noticing more people wearing them in public these days. We are being told to wear face masks only if you are sick or if you are a frontline worker like a nurse or a doctor. We regard this practice as socially unacceptable.

Face masks: socialized in Asian societies

In Asia, people are expected to wear a mask in public at all times–both adults and children alike.  The wearing of masks has almost become a sign of public courtesy. It heightens our awareness of germs and sends out the message that one ought to be cautious of not spreading or contracting germs.  Regardless of whether masks are effective or not, it’s seen as a symbolic gesture of social courtesy at the least.

I was surprised to learn that in Asia, to be seen not wearing a mask in public, one might get odd stares. A person shopping for essential items might be viewed as an exposer of germs.  He or she will not feel welcomes to shop there.

A Starbucks barista wearing a mask in Taiwan (Changhua county, 2017).

Asian people are deadly afraid of the virus. When Asia had the SARS and the MERS outbreak, thousands of people died, it didn’t much affect the rest of the world. The rate of fatality was close to 10% for those who did contract the virus (vs Covid-19 at 1-2%). Asians have become extremely sensitized.

For Asians who have come to North America, they have carried this practice over from Asia. It has been deeply socialized in the culture and has nothing to do with whether one has the virus. Should we fault Asians in North America for wearing face masks in public?

In Taiwan, the wearing of face masks is the norm and is highly encouraged by health authorities. It is more than just a social courtesy but also a health precaution for the healthy, and not just for those who are ill. 

A person not wearing a face mask while shopping for groceries might be barred rom entry. Some shopkeepers and local businesses take it very seriously. That’s why everyone will carry a face mask or even two with them. Wearing a face mask is a duty and a social responsibility for everyone.

Travelers at Hong Kong Int’l Airport at sanitizing station.

Do more widespread testing

Since the start of the outbreak in Wuhan, Asian countries have been treating the Coronavirus with war-like mentality. Nations and jurisdictions like Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Hong Kong have done a very good job in warding off high infection rates. The wearing of face masks is only one of the contributors to their success.

They also do mandatory public temperature screenings at airports, schools and large public spaces. I know it seems somewhat draconian to have to check everyone.

Public health workers doing temperature screening will wear protective clothing. It gives the impression that the deadly virus could be lurking anywhere and could hit at any moment. It strikes fear in the public psyche. Some might opine that we need to increase this awareness and alertness to the dangers of the coronavirus.

These hardline measures are a stark contrast to our culture where social freedoms and liberties are highly valued and protected. Can we do this kind of thing in Canada and the United States?

Will we get to the point where a wide spread infection of coronavirus will require mandatory or random public check points, and if the donning of masks might become socialized in the western world?

We might be seeing a change very shortly. Rumors have it that the CDC has been considering a change in public directives regarding wearing face masks in public. A change might come after production of face masks gets ramped up in the United States. Is there a reason why we are being fed the line that face masks are reserved for frontline workers and the ill only? I think there might be.

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