Disclaimer: I am so comparatively ignorant about this subject in comparison to the absolute avalanche of information there is out there on the coronavirus. Please take this post for what it is: a well-intentioned but probably misinformed rambling from this rando living in Hong Kong. Also, I voted last week from abroad, which I’m excited about, but also depressed because the 2020 primaries look like one big disappointment from here.
I don’t have a relationship with masks. Masks, I’ve always thought, are wardrobe staples of the cool tall girls with straight hair in manga, with an unnerving all-black wardrobe.
Like in Fruits Basket. Arisa Uotani, probably the best prototype that I can conjure from the dusty recesses of my horrific memory (remember this one guys?! Remember?? Man, I ate these books up), who screams things like “BAKA!!!” and pressed her knuckles into the protagonist Tohru’s scalp (affectionately).
I imagined that these masks were almost always black, made of woven cotton, and sometimes had sharp teeth embroidered into the front a la Alice’s Cheshire Cat, or the Joker’s smile, or whatever else to hide the bottom half of your face. Arisa’s isn’t in the photo above, but that’s all right.
It’s fashion, they said. I never saw a single mask of this kind while growing up in the US. Whether masks are fashionable in South Korea or Japan or wherever else, there are concrete reasons people wear them (other than forming a pretty badass alternative to sunglasses when looking for some cute anonymity when leaving your apartment after a particularly sloppy night out).
The first reason is for air pollution. Asian cities are particularly known for chokingly heavy air pollution – Beijing, Seoul, Hong Kong, Jakarta, are only a handful. One report claims that of the 100 most polluted cities in the world, 99 of them are in Asia. Ninety-nine!!!
It’s a wonder we who live in Asia are still alive, when actually, we’re just all merrily inhaling poison with every breath they take. Never has “From the moment we are born, we begin to die,” held more truth than here in good ol’ East Asia.
Lest you wonder, naturally, how a cotton mask can prevent pollution particles from entering your lungs, especially since those masks look kind of thick and would probably suffocate you anyway, rest assured that there are masks specifically engineered for pollution purposes.
Take, for example, the 3M N95 masks (yeah, I know – slap a few numbers on something and my eyes instant glaze over too!), which claim to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, including air pollution matter.
Others, like my personal favorite (for the very shallow reason that I think it’s the cutest), the Pitta Mask, which is really only designed to filter out pollen particles and allergens, and also to be insanely cute and badass.
Not all masks are created equal. Some are insanely ugly. This is a fact.
Beyond just protection from pollution, people in Asia wear masks when they’re actually sick. My mother, a career nurse, often wore surgical masks at home when she was sick, but I never thought anything of it. She’d busy herself with slicing fruit and washing dishes after a long day at work, the bottom of her face completely covered, murmuring that she was sick.
Until I actually moved to Asia three years ago, I never saw anyone wear a mask on the street. And then I moved to Asia and the sight of someone wearing one became commonplace.
Surgical mask, pitta mask, literally-no-other-reason-than-to-look-badass-mask…people were definitely wearing them. This article by QZ points to a particularly destructive pandemic of influenza in the early 20th century that first paved the way for face coverings – whether they be scarves, veils, or masks – to become commonplace. Cue one earthquake, and another pandemic later, and mask-wearing in public quickly became a totally normal staple of everyday life.
Here’s a theory of my own: East Asian cultures tend to be less individualistic and more collectivist than Western cultures. So when you’re sick, it’s seen as polite and considerate to protect others from yourself. I mean, it makes sense. If you haven’t been on the receiving end of a particularly vigorous coughing session on the New York subway, then you haven’t lived.
If You’re Supposed to Wear a Mask if You’re Actually Sick, Then Why the Hell is Everyone Wearing a Mask?
I talked to someone a few weeks ago who asked me how I felt about the coronavirus making its rounds in Hong Kong. By this time, masks were being worn by everyone, everywhere. Each time I stepped into my gym, an employee stoically held a tiny thermometer to my head like a mini-firearm. “Temperature!” they’d state with purpose the first few times this happened, only to become “Temperature,” with the bored drawl of someone who’s job is to do this to every. Single. Person. Who. Enters. I washed my hands until they were red-raw and practiced my balance on the subway.
“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “I guess I’m not that afraid. I feel like those Hong Kong taxis have a higher chance of killing me every day than the virus. Also, I’m under thirty. I kind of feel like I’d survive.”
I wanted to add that I didn’t think I’d do very well in a zombie apocalypse. Because I don’t think I can run very fast. But I saved it. Because we should deal with one apocalyptic issue at a time.
He laughed. It was probably not because what I said was actually funny and more probably more because I spoke like a millennial who truly believes that nothing can kill them. I mean, I pour a socially-accepted poison into my body every weekend in bars,rooms where people do that, so it’s not like I’m not killing myself slowly.
I quickly added that also, I feel self-conscious if I’m not wearing a mask. “I think it’s probably just the nice thing to do,” I offered. Timidly, I added that maybe people are extra collectivist in mindset, and that group-think was especially powerful in moments like these. People are just being good people. “I mean, it’s just a nice thing to do. I think.” Until I saw his expression.
If the phrase “Looooool” (not “LOL” or “hahahaha”) had a look, he gave it to me just then.
“You think people are wearing masks to be nice? Or that they want you to put one on because they’re worried about you? Girl, they don’t care about you. It’s totally all self-protection. ‘How do I know you don’t have the virus’?”
He then sized me up. “How do I know you don’t have it?” I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. I decided that he was, because I valued our friendship, and weaker relationships have been destroyed on the basis of less.
So from thenceforth, I accepted his hypothesis that people thought that I might be carrying the virus, and that was why last week when I entered a lift on a day that I forgot my mask, a woman moved visibly away from me.
Okay, to be honest, she glanced at me and took a full sidestep away from my possibly-pathogen-carrying body. The lower half of her face was completely covered, but I could have sworn that I saw her nose wrinkle and the corners of her mouth turn down.
I instantly felt ashamed. Totally singled out. A pariah. I wanted to tell her that I exercised most days of the week, and that I probably had a strong immune system, and I didn’t have any symptoms, and felt great that day. But of course I didn’t, and it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway. And as soon as I got upstairs, I pulled out my mask and stretched it over my jaw, even though there was no one around to see me do it.
Peer pressure is an incredibly powerful thing.
But it’s not totally my fault that that happened. There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there. In Hong Kong, the official advice is that when you’re out in public places, you should be wearing a mask, and that wearing a surgical mask, although obviously not 100% reliable and isn’t anywhere near as effective as practicing good hygiene habits, might reduce the chances of the virus spreading.
When you have advice like the above, you end up getting shit like this, breaking down how far a sneeze can travel. (For the record, it’s that “large droplets are carried more than 6 meters away by exhaled air at a velocity of 50 m per second”). The name of this article is “How Far Do Sneeze Droplets Travel and How Big Can They Get?” I’ll let that speak for itself. If coronavirus mania has reached an apex, this would definitely be it (spoken too soon?). It’s no wonder that everyone in the Hong Kong public is wearing a mask today.
But then, what about advice like the below?
Here’s an advisory infographic from the Singapore government, another large Asian metropolis with a comparable number of coronavirus cases as those in Hong Kong.
“Do Not Wear a Mask If You Are Well.”
The reasoning behind this is simple: firstly, that wearing a mask is no guarantee that you won’t be infected, and that the virus is transferred via droplets and there is currently no evidence that it’s airborne.
Also, have you seen the queues to buy masks? I tried seven shops in several different neighborhoods in Hong Kong, only to be turned away with a shrug and a “All sold out. Sorry.” And if you are lucky enough to snag a box, there are limits on how many you can buy. I can’t blame the government for wanting to preserve supplies while they still can.
Because of all of these factors, mask-wearing is now ubiquitous. Whether it’s my own timidly ventured theory of collectivism and being courteous to others, or my shame at not adhering to what’s clearly become a social norm (albeit hopefully temporarily), or following the Hong Kong government’s advice, not wearing one is now looked down upon – at best, it’s a uncourteous show of carelessness, and at worst, an arrogant and cavalier attitude towards a near-pandemic that Hong Kong still holds close in historical memory twenty years after SARS.
My partner, who travelled to Italy, his home country, around a month ago, told me that overseas, those who are wearing masks are seen to already be ill, and that if you’re seen wearing one, you can be immediately be ostracized, especially if you’re known to be traveling from Asia. The practice just isn’t carried out with the same militancy as has been in Asia – for years.
That was a month ago. I probably don’t need to tell you about the state of things in Italy today in March.
Hong Kong’s Attitude About the Coronavirus is Inescapably Tinged by the Memory of SARS
When I was asked if I was around during SARS by a Hong Kong friend (I gave a simple “no,” and declined to mention that I was still in grade school during that time), I couldn’t help but ask if there were markedly different attitudes towards what the Hong Kong response to coronavirus was compared to during SARS.
“Firstly,” she said thoughtfully, “technology back then wasn’t what it is now. Because of that, news didn’t spread as quickly – whether real or fake – and as a result, we just didn’t have hordes of people clearing supermarket shelves of masks and toilet paper and bleach and whatever else.”
“Secondly, we didn’t have work-from-home arrangements back then. So people still had to come into work and carry on with their daily lives as usual, so I think the spread of the virus was much faster.”
Another friend soon joined the conversation and said that since SARS, hygiene standards in Hong Kong quickly changed. “You see those cleaners doing top-down cleaning in lobbies and floors? The use of communal chopsticks so that diners don’t swap spit when eating in restaurants? Not all of that existed before.”
Undoubtedly, these factors also contribute to the current climate toward mask-wearing. Another acquaintance I know even ventured to claim that the people who weren’t wearing masks in Hong Kong tended to be Westerners, and then went on to claim that there was undue discrimination against them for that reason.
It’s true – many of the Westerners (not all) living in Hong Kong probably weren’t around during SARS, and so the meticulous care taken towards hygiene and communal activities, sometimes seen as overwrought or overdramatic, isn’t practiced at the same level by everyone in the city. But culture has an undisputed impact on behaviors here, and what can be seen as either an overreaction or an underreaction has its roots in where we’ve come from.
Hong Kong Today During the Coronavirus
What’s actually fascinating about the genesis of the ubiquitous mask-wearing culture is how it’s completely transformed the most mundane, the most banal of everyday activities. The cornerstone of how society is meant to be organized, from how people get into elevators to exactly which supermarket staples are meant to be, well, staples (armed toilet paper heist, anyone? How about rice?) has been completely affected.
I mean, that is how I thought up until like two weeks ago, when toilet paper began disappearing from the shelves of first my local supermarket, then from the supermarket two streets further away (yes, I dragged my sorry ass over there to look), and then from the bougie one near my work. If that 4-ply toilet paper’s disappeared from the bougie supermarkets, then you know that shit’s serious.
Here’s an example for you: the morning ritual of boarding an elevator in an office building.
The lobby of a Hong Kong office building is basically identical to every other office building, and yet no two office buildings are alike. There’s a panel of concierge-types, mostly comprised of women in neat pulled-back buns with nary a baby hair in sight. Shiny floors in which I like to study my reflection. Today that panel wears matching masks, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, there are monster bottles of hand sanitizer lining the counters, plump bubbles in the center. The security guard who usually stands at the turnstiles has instead found a seat behind a monitor, where I can only assume he’s staring at something that looks like this.
At the post office – at the gym – entering bars: it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re planning to do: everyone expects a mask and wants to take your temperature. “Social distancing,” a polite euphemism taken on by offices and corporations and the BBC to mean “Get the hell away from me, lest I breathe in your bodily fluids,” is now the new normal.
As this is all occurring, the hits that the tourism and hospitality industries have taken have been enormous – just like during the protests late last year. Although in the past few weeks, I’ve seen a steady trickle of customers come back to my staple coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, people on the whole are cautious. I know this because every day I forget to wear my mask as I walk home from work, I’m chided by the security guard who mans the lobby of my apartment building.
“You need to wear one!” my favorite security guy barks at me every time I come in. I give him the equivalent of the iPhone grimace-sheepish-grin and bounce into the elevator, making sure to hit the button with a knuckle instead of a fingertip.
I’m not sure when Hong Kong will go back to the way it was before – before the coronavirus, even before the protests. I’m not sure when the hotels will be tightly packed again, or when restaurants will be filled to the brim, or when prices for all kinds of goods and services aren’t slashed.
Hong Kong does its best, and moves ever forward, and I’ll always be astounded at its efforts to see a better tomorrow.