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Faced With Face Masks: A Brief Discussion of Current Challenges

Health, Safety, and Well-being Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Health, Safety, and Well-being Initiatives Wellness and Health Promotion
June 4, 2020 Hsin-Yu Chen The Pennsylvania State University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 6, No. 2. May. 2020

Inside, Outside, and In Between:  An Ongoing Column of JCC Connexions

Experts continue to debate the effectiveness of face masks in preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only do policies, laws, and practical considerations (such as the national supply of masks and how to prioritize them) vary from region to region, people’s attitudes toward face masks may also reflect their cultural values and history.

Background, Rationale, and Current Practice

Even before the pandemic, there had been some discussion online about the relative prevalence of face masks in public daily life in East Asia. Some commentators also asked why Asian tourists wear face masks, an unfamiliar practice that some people find frightening. While there are many historical events and factors one could point to, below are some more salient reasons, based on my personal experience, for the general practice of wearing face masks in East Asia.

Air pollution. When I was little, many of my friends and I would wear cloth face masks on the way to school. I did not like wearing mine; it made my glasses foggy and I couldn’t breathe comfortably. However, when stopped at a red light on my parents’ motorcycle, amid all the other motorcycles releasing their exhaust, I was glad to have it. In recent years, smog and fine dust from industrial coal and chemical processes in mainland China have been brought to Taiwan by monsoons, which combine with domestically produced pollution and vehicle exhaust stemming from Taiwan’s high population density to create severe air pollution. Because poor air quality, particularly the PM2.5, can lead to diminished lung and heart function, asthma, and all kinds of complications, there have been masks specifically designed for air filtration.

Health and Hygiene. Beyond these environmental factors, people also wear masks for broader reasons of health. Children commonly wear face masks to school if they have caught a cold. Similarly, in adult social settings, one will commonly encounter a person wearing a mask saying something like, “I’m not sure if I have allergies or a cold, so I’m just wearing a face mask to make sure I won’t be contagious.” Not only is wearing a cloth face mask as a precaution socially acceptable, people may think you are civic-minded and responsible. 

Particularly after the outbreak of SARS in East Asia around 2003, surgical face masks became more acceptable and popular. Despite their questionable efficacy, wearing face masks communicates a desire to protect not only ourselves, but also others because we never know the potential risks during a virus’s incubational period. As such, the practice may be related to the cultural value of collectivism. Most people believe that if face masks are used in crowded areas, the cumulative effect may help reduce public transmission. 

Self-Expression. Believe it or not, the face mask has also evolved into part of culture. More and more people, especially youth, wear face masks and headphones to signify that they wish to be left alone on public transportation. Although celebrities will sometimes choose to hide their identity by wearing a mask, some regular people also use face masks to hide their identity in order to obtain some personal space and privacy in public. A side benefit of this trend is that wearers can use masks to hide physical imperfections (e.g., pimples, zits, or scars), or on days when they don’t want to put on make-up.

In fashionable circles, masks are now designed in a variety of colors and shapes, becoming a chic accessory. Meanwhile, a wide variety of more everyday face masks, such as 3-D masks, anti-UV masks, and anti-PM2.5 masks, can be purchased at grocery stores, pharmacies, and convenience stores. To us, face masks are something that will not catch any additional attention. No one really cares if you wear one or not in daily life.

The Need for Understanding

In the US, however, the situation is very different—at least until recently. It wasn’t until my second or third year here, when I developed a severe pollen allergy, that I realized face masks were uncommon in this country. Telling others about my symptoms (which included watering eyes, runny nose, and changes to my voice), I asked if they had any tips besides taking medicine—would they recommend wearing a face mask? Their answer surprised me. I quickly realized that, in the US, when someone wears a face mask in public, others assume that person is seriously sick and really should stay at home. As a result of this assumption, those who wore masks at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, before the CDC recommendation, may have received unwanted attention or even been shunned or attacked.

Negative experiences such as these illustrate vividly the dangers of cultural misunderstandings. To be sure, in the current crisis, norms seem to be changing rapidly, apparently of their own accord. Only a few weeks ago, a couple of my friends shared with me that wearing a mask made them feel ridiculous, as if they looked like a potential terrorist or bank robber. However, another friend shared that when he wore a mask to the store for the first time, he was happy to see many others doing the same, which made him less self- conscious. Yet it is still too early to say whether the practice of wearing face masks will be something organic and spontaneous, or will come primarily from government policies. Either way, however, our need for empathy remains as strong as ever. 

Others’ behavior, like our own, is complex and may relate to the conscious and subconscious mind, habits, implicit and explicit cultural meanings and cues, health concerns, peer pressure, and many other factors. There are many lessons to be learned from this current challenging time, and face masks just provide one example. However, along with developing new habits of disease prevention, perhaps we can also think more about how we treat people from different cultures. The more we stop relying merely on our own lenses and assumptions, the more we likely we are to understand the reasons behind different behaviors. Perhaps, when the current crisis is over, even if you don’t agree with wearing face masks, at least you will be more understanding of those who wear them and will no longer perceive them as strange.