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2020.05.24 10:00

How West learnt from East to wear facemasks

What is the history behind the humble facemask, the stigmas surrounding it and its recent adoption by the Europeans? Jeremy Van der Haegen reports from Brussels.

European countries have been turning towards the use of face masks in their coronavirus exit strategies since the end of April. Asian Europeans were the earliest adopters of masks when the virus first started making waves in the West.

While they are dealing with public discrimination over their ethnicity and masks, Europe is now scrambling to make masks available for everyone and in some cases even mandatory.

The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus has seen stores worldwide sold out of essential products such as toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, rubber gloves and face masks.

The latter being a curious item on the shopping list of many Western consumers but not a surprising one. Images of health workers donning protection suits and face masks have become imprinted on the collective subconscious ever since the earliest reports on the outbreak of a respiratory disease in Wuhan.

The lockdown of the city with a population of 11 million sent consumers around the globe in a face mask-hoarding frenzy.

European countries found themselves in a bidding war over face masks.

The pandemic, which has seen over 290,000 deaths worldwide and over four million infections as of writing, has changed global medical supply chains in drastic ways that even begin to affect global power structures.

'Face mask diplomacy' has quickly gripped the world politics stage and even provokes whispers of an Asian power shift among observers, with medical donations for the West and South now stemming from the East.

The sudden demand for face masks often has Westerners questioning why their countries aren't fully stocked up on face masks and other medical supplies.

Face masks were first worn by people in the West during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918. Around 500 million people, two thirds of the world population at that time, were infected and an estimated amount of 50 million people died.

The habit of wearing face masks didn't stick around for long in the West.

"The threshold on when to start wearing face masks is way lower in Asia compared to the West. I suspect that covering the face is more problematic in Western cultures," says Veerle De Vos, Asia correspondent for the Flemish public radio and television company.

Origins of face mask culture

Asian people adopted the habit of wearing face masks for a variety of reasons, like countering air pollution for example.

"I noticed an increase in face masks usage in China during the last decades due to the decrease of air quality. People in large Chinese cities tend to wear masks that are specifically equipped with fine dust filters," says De Vos.

However, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) was a major originator of the face mask wearing culture. SARS, a virus similar to SARS-CoV-2, saw an outbreak in 2003. It was less infectious but had a much higher mortality rate in general.

That virus was effectively eradicated in 2014 after a total of 8,098 infections with 774 fatal cases.

"SARS was a previously unseen public health crisis in modern history and experts in Asia advised people to start wearing face masks. It became a lasting preemptive measure," says Sarah Zheng, a Taiwanese journalist who wrote on facemask culture.

Facemasks soon became a symbol of collective solidarity within the community. "It felt like we were all fighting the virus together," Zheng added.

In the years after SARS, face masks became normalised in Asia as personal protection equipment. Fashionable face masks sporting artistic and cute designs are extremely common in Japan.

"It became such a common object that people started wearing it for aesthetic reasons, or even to protect their face from the cold during the winter," says Zheng.

In an unprecedented move, some European countries recently started implementing mandatory use of facemasks in public spaces.

On 25 April, Belgium's interim government announced that starting May 4, facemask-wearing would be required for using public transport and in other public areas.

The German government followed suit and stated on April 27 that face masks would become essential in public spaces around the entire country. Violations could be fined up to €5,000.

Even more symbolic was the European Parliament's move on April 28 to oblige all its MEPs and staff to wear face masks on all sites of the European institution.

East vs West

The difference in Eastern and Western perception towards face masks often leads to various stigmas in both parts of the world.

For Asian observers, not wearing face masks represents the lack of social cohesion, failure of effective government prevention strategies and comprehensive solidarity.

In the eyes of many Westerners, wearing a face mask indicates a high chance of personal illness and is closely associated with Asian culture, where the first wave of the virus began, and thus potential danger.

"If you weren't wearing a face mask in public in Hong Kong, people would think you are being really irresponsible because you are potentially contributing to the further spread of the disease," Zheng explained.

Many foreigners in the Hong Kong are still at risk of being targeted by discrimination and racism when not wearing a mask.

During the initial lockdown phase in China, not wearing a face mask in public would provoke a state-sanctioned fine. Intercity transportation in Taiwan has required mandatory use of a face mask since the start of April.

Foreign workers in Europe and Asian-Europeans have faced severe discrimination and outright racism for wearing face masks, a habit most picked up from their Asian cultural heritage.

In fact, people of Asian descent in Europe faced a storm of racism after stories of the coronavirus outbreak were finally picked up by commercial news media and became a topic of public speculation by the end of January.

Chinese people were perceived as virus carriers and all other Asian ethnicities were bluntly lumped in with the Chinese.

Edward Jiang, a 39-year old Belgian of Tawainese descent, didn't even consider wearing face masks until other Belgians picked up the habit as well. "I feel like there is a lot of pressure in Belgium to act 'normal' and to toe the line of being a 'normal Belgian'," he says.

'Johnny Chen', a 39-year old Belgian national with Taiwanese origins (who did not want his real name used), feels the use of face masks was under constant scrutiny in Europe. "It might be an indication that you're sick. It wasn't really socially 'permitted'," he says.

Although it now seems more likely face mask culture will partially find its way into Europe's collective array of behaviours due to recent lockdown measures, there is still much to be said about this initial clash of habits, the varying means of production and supposed cultural barriers.

Should Europeans sacrifice their tradition of uncovered faces in exchange for collective safeguarding? Should they keep a closer eye on the constructive habits of their Asian communities instead of treating them as outcasts overnight?

The debate is completely up for grabs.