Facemask culture: Personal protection in the East | Sunday Observer

Facemask culture: Personal protection in the East

Face masks for personal protection have been in use globally for over a century but it is only now, when literally the entire world is under threat from this airborne pandemic, do we see exactly, how differently the world’s multitude of cultures perceive its use. While to most of us, their use can be seen as common sense or a necessity, this isn’t the case in other parts of the world, where it might even be controversial to have one. More and more reports can be seen online of people throwing fits over not wanting to use these personal protection masks in the West; even in the middle of a pandemic while in the East, not only is it the norm, it has been that way for decades.

For the East, this attitude of protection of not just yourself but your community from disease was cultivated way back in the 20th century. The modern practice of wearing personal equipment, namely facemasks, originated in China during the deadly Manchurian Plague; an airborne disease with a 100% mortality rate that claimed over sixty thousand lives. Doctor Wu Lien-teh’s push for facemasks and quarantine was monumental in containing the disease to just a handful of cities and provided a perfect case study on how to handle such an outbreak in the future.

The West disputed this even back then, and despite the doctors who argued against the precautions set by Doctor Wu quickly catching and promptly dying of the Manchurian Plague, the West continued to remain skeptical.

This event set the precedent for the importance of multinational medical responses which was once again tested and proved not a decade later, during the devastating 1918 Influenza outbreak, more commonly known as the Spanish Flu, which claimed more lives globally than the first World War and infected a third of the entire human population at the time. However, compared to the West, which got heavily affected and accounted for the majority of the fatalities, in the East it was far more contained and communities were reportedly not as heavily affected, despite rumours claiming the disease to have originated in China.

While these horrible pandemics allowed the Eastern communities to trust the use of personal protection equipment, modern reasons for the public to use these without the incidence of a plague are quite different. Its use reflects the attitudes of the people, as countries like Japan and South Korea value privacy and reputation, their people wear masks as sort of buffer against society, much like wearing headphones or sunglasses. Celebrities have had a significant hand in popularising this, wearing facemasks to hide their identities, and thus starting a fashion trend.

Of course, there are more reasons behind their popularity beyond the superficial. For example, Japan, as a society, is very courteous to a fault. So, when afflicted with a cold or a similar affliction, Japanese people tend to wear a mask to protect the people around them, even at the cost of their own comfort.

Another reason is a magnitude more superstitious, as most east Asian countries believe in bad air, a traditional belief that is a sort of precursor to germ theory, which led to these nations to take air pollution much more seriously than its western counterparts. Thus, using facemasks has become ingrained in their cultures and it is common sense to wear one. People are much more likely to stare if you are not wearing a mask, which is stark contrast to most countries.

Of course, people in the West are not exactly stupid.

They too have their reasons to hesitate in adopting something they are not used to. Medical research does not exactly see facemasks as a reliable precaution against airborne diseases, considering social distancing and washing hands to be far more effective. Thus, those who find facemasks to be uncomfortable to wear would latch on to that and reject it.

It is not unreasonable to say that perfectly healthy individuals don’t need to wear facemasks as they are more to protect others from yourself than the other way around, thus due to a culture that is more about the individual than the whole, they tend to forego personal protection equipment.

Ultimately, both sides have their reasons for both adopting and avoiding facemasks as a measure of protection against airborne diseases.

However, despite the facemasks being unreliable, they do help at least somewhat, and in a situation as dire as this, where people are dying in their thousands globally, it is necessary to put aside our personal misgivings and biases, and adopt these measures to protect our community, not only from the current pandemic but in the future as well. 

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