[Update April 2020: Ever since this piece was published in late January, public opinion, governmental health advice, and clinical evidence in support of face masks from around the world have become the norm rather than the exception.]
I’m not going to pretend to be a medical expert here and offer any sort of science- or medically backed argument about the efficacy or lack thereof of wearing a face mask during an outbreak of an infectious disease. In fact, there is already plenty of advice floating around — like that washing your hands is an important preventive measure, as is not touching your face. Wearing a mask in public, meanwhile, is said to have little to no effect in pathogen prevention; I’ve lost count of the number of (English) news articles from international media toeing this specific line. (By contrast, HK infectious disease experts actually do recommend face-mask-wearing.)
Instead, I’m going to speak from my personal experience as a mere mortal, to push back on what I perceive as slightly condescending, somewhat culturally insensitive missives on mask-wearing practices that are, frankly, already prevalent in many communities and countries around the world, and especially in Asia.
Coronavirus or no coronavirus, face-mask-wearing in cities like mine (Hong Kong) is as much a gesture of considerateness (preventing the user from spraying potentially infectious and unhygienic particles onto unsuspecting others) as it is a preventive measure against transmissions, viral or otherwise. It is also quite the practical thing to do in a dense and congested metropolis like ours, where close contact is unavoidable. The practice of face-mask-wearing in public is said to have been popularized in Japan, a country that leads on the world stage when it comes to public hygiene and collective social responsibility.
In times like these, when everything is uncertain and actual facts are scarce, I take much comfort in knowing that my community and my fellow citizens care (about each other as well as for themselves) — by wearing a face mask out in public and in crowded indoor spaces. There is a stoic sense of community spirit shared amongst everyone donning a mask; it’s an implicit way of acknowledging that yes, I do care about your wellbeing as well as my own, dear stranger and neighbor.
Which brings me to ask: What really is the value in saying that wearing a mask doesn’t help in potential pandemic situations like this one? Is mask-wearing really so unhelpful to the point that it creates more harm than good? Some of the experts are certainly trying to imply this — and when there is conclusive clinical and statistical evidence to prove their thesis, I will definitely be listening. Most mask-sceptics haven’t gone nearly as far in their convictions (probably because there haven’t been enough studies conducted on this topic to begin with) — which makes me question why they are so quick to dismiss the mask in the first place.
What truly doesn’t help, though, is that many of the people who look down on face masks are also making assumptions of mask-wearers and pitching them against the standards of an entirely different default (i.e. western) culture altogether — where indeed, public face-mask-wearing has never been the norm, and can be viewed as strange, uncool, or for lack of a more descriptive word, “Asian.” And now we can add “allegedly ineffective” and “possibly harmful” to the list. Lumped into this general view is the inherent assumption of a mask-wearing person who just doesn’t get it. Well, I vehemently disagree with this narrative. It is precisely because we get it — that face-mask-wearing can transcend selfish, personal needs (of protecting oneself) and be used as a beneficial public tool for society at large — that makes the counter-advice of not wearing one (which is the natural, inevitable conclusion of saying face masks aren’t effective) so unproductive, tone deaf, and possibly even damaging for public health.
Of course, there is a very dark side to my argument. I loathe the fact that face masks are becoming a rare commodity not just in Asia, but all over the world, and causing panic-inducing situations of their own. (On that note, please consider donating to these charities if you have any extra supplies.) I hate the idea of people hoarding extra stock and suppliers charging exorbitant prices during times of true demand. I hate the lasting environmental impact of disposable masks.
But I also know that at a time like this, I’m proud to see everyone in the community doing their part in ways big and small, whether that’s caring more diligently for their personal hygiene, or wearing a face mask to spare me and others from an involuntary post-sneeze spritz.
[Updated Feb 4, 2020]