Daily US Times: If you step outside without a face mask in Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, you may get a lot of disapproving looks. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, some places in the world fully embraced wearing face masks and anyone stays outside without it, becoming a social pariah.
But the situation is completely different in other places in the world. In Singapore, the US and the UK, people walk around bare-faced and it is perfectly acceptable.
Why some countries accept masks and others don’t, is not always medical advice and government directives- it’s also about culture and history.
But as this pandemic worsens, will this change?
The official word on face masks
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been clear on using face masks since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. WHO suggested only two typer of people to wear face masks: those who are caring for people who are suspected to have the coronavirus and those who are sick and show symptoms.
Nobody else needs to wear face masks and there are some reasons for that.
The face mask is not reliable protection as current research shows the virus is spread by droplets and not airborne transmission. This is why experts say frequent handwashing with water and soap is far more effective than a mask.
Removing a mask requires special attention to avoid hand contamination, and it could also breed a false sense of security.
But, in some parts of Asia, everyone wears a mask by default as a sign of safety.
In Mainland China, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand, the broad assumption is that everyone could carry the virus, even the healthy people. So in a spirit of solidarity, you need to protect others from yourself.
Some of these governments are urging its citizens to wear masks and even some parts in China, you could be punished and arrested for not wearing a mask.
In the Philippines and Indonesia, where it is suspected that there are many under-reported cases, most people in major cities stated to wear face masks to protect themselves from others.
Wearing a face mask is a cultural norm for many of these countries, even before the outbreak. They’ve even become fashion statements – at one point Hello Kitty face masks were the rage in the street markets of Hong Kong.
In East Asia, it’s considered impolite to be sneezing or coughing openly, and people are used to wearing masks when they are sick or when it’s hayfever season.
Several countries in the region have affected by 2003 Sars outbreak, are used to wearing masks when they are sick or when it’s hayfever season, also drove home the importance of wearing masks, particularly in Hong Kong, where many died as a result of the virus.
So one key reason between Asian countries and Western ones, is that they have experienced some kind of outbreak before and the memories are still painful and fresh.
Meanwhile, in the densely populated cities in South East Asia, many people wear masks just because of heavy pollution.
But not everywhere in Asia are the same. In Singapore, the government urged citizens not to wear masks to ensure adequate supplies for healthcare workers, and most people walk around without one.
Singaporean people have substantial trust in their government and so people are likely to listen to such advice.
The mask as a social nudge
Some argue that ubiquitous mask-wearing, as a very visual reminder of the dangers of the virus, could actually act as a “behavioral nudge” to you and others for overall better personal hygiene.
Donald Low, a behavioral economist and professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said: “Putting on a mask every day before you go out is like a ritual, like putting on a uniform, and in ritual behavior, you feel you have to live up to what the uniform stands for, which is more hygienic behavior like not touching your face or avoiding crowded places and social distancing.”
But face masks are somewhat effective, according to Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist with Hong Kong University.
“If face masks are used on a lot of people in crowded areas, I think it would have some effect on public transmission, and at the moment we’re looking for every small measure we can to reduce transmission – it adds up.”