Mask Culture: Taiwan vs. America

September 25, 2020

international mask culture, Taiwan and America

I remember when SARS showed up in Hong Kong in 2003. I was thirteen at the time and attending international school in the New Territories. Life got really weird and scary for a while, and as a young impressionable person it felt surreal, like in E.T. when the government finally gets involved with their hazmat suits and long white tubes. We all had this card which we had to write our temperature on each morning, and when we got to school the teacher would check them all. We had to wear masks at school (and anywhere in public), which is perhaps the only time in my goodie-two-shoes life that I openly flouted the school’s gum-chewing rules. And it was perhaps the only time teachers didn’t care if they caught you chewing gum. They would not, however, tolerate improper mask wearing.

Before SARS, masks were not something you really saw in public. During SARS, they were everywhere, all the time. Everyone was extremely cautious. Eventually it paid off, but things never went back to the way they had been before. SARS was a collective trauma that informed a new cautious behavior. Masks became part of the new normal; anytime you were in a public place you’d be able to see probably at least one person wearing one. It became expected that if you were sick, however mildly, that you would wear one. It became normal to wear one as a preventative measure. It became normal to wear one any time you found yourself in a crowd. It became part of social etiquette. A mere extension of common courtesies like covering your mouth when you cough, or sneezing into your shirt (which might be a little gross but sometimes it’s all you got). 

Over the last century masks have been embraced by Asian countries; they became most widespread during the 1918 Influenza outbreak and their place in society was only cemented by the SARS epidemic. Japan has a particularly fascinating history with masks. According to Japan Times, their use dates back to religious ceremonies in the Edo period (1603-1868). Today, Japan virtually celebrates masks, with a large market for different kinds – UV resistant, “slimming”, extra breathable for the summertime, and recently ones into which you can even slip ice packs to keep your face cool. They are a point of pride. 

Recently a friend of mine (hi, Mary!) asked me what it’s like here in Taiwan. And the shocking reality is that life here is by essentially all measures, normal. All the stores are still open. While businesses have suffered as people have been more careful and chosen to stay home, most have fared okay overall. People are going about their normal daily lives, going to work (physically, not remotely) and going out to eat with friends. Kids are in school, without the necessity of any measures beyond face masks, temperature-taking and good hygiene. We sometimes go to the movies. There are no protests about mask mandates or school safety regulations. People aren’t losing their jobs, they are still able to pay rent, there isn’t a growing homeless population and people aren’t dying of COVID-19. A far cry from what I imagine an experience of the U.S. to be right now.

Taiwan made a lot of smart moves regarding the COVID-19 outbreak starting as early as December when the first cases were detected in China. One of those moves came at the beginning of February as the government curbed sales of masks at convenience stores (you can usually go to any 7/11 or family mart and buy a pack), and instead put in place a new system requiring residents to purchase masks (very cheaply, for only $5 NT/mask – $0.17 USD) from health insurance sponsored pharmacies. They were rationed – at first you could only buy 3/week, using your health card on certain days of the week. Eventually that number went up, and just recently they lifted restrictions on masks so you can once again buy them by the box if you wish. This measure ensured equal accessibility and that everyone would have the protection needed, while at the same time cutting risk of panic buying and setting a great tone for the public (there was no toilet paper panic buying either). 

Everyone on the MRT has to wear a mask.

To be honest, I never really kept up on exactly what the face mask wearing regulations were. When you live here you don’t really need to because everyone just wears them when it is appropriate. However, there has been a small increase in the number of cases in Taiwan recently, mostly of mysterious origin. Last month Taiwan News released this article listing places where masks are now compulsory, a regulatory response to the increase in cases. There are consequences for non-compliance; the Taipei MRT will issue fines of up to $15,000 NTD to those caught maskless trying to enter the station.

Another area of COVID-19 defense that Taiwan has championed is contact tracing. Just last week this article came out saying that 6 new cases were confirmed, all Filipino migrant workers who tested positive after leaving Taiwan. Within days the CECC (Central Epidemic Command Center, a part of the National Health Command Center established after SARS) had already identified the 164 contacts to be screened and tested. They have been extremely proactive about seeking out potential cases, testing, and quarantining when necessary. Because of this, there has been very little local spread of the virus, and almost all of our cases have been imported from other countries. That said, it only takes one undetected case to turn everything on its head, which is why remaining vigilant is key. 

Meanwhile, in America…

This video is one pretty mild example of some of the viciously negative views of masks that are spreading, not just in the U.S. but in the wider western world (see here and here). Reasons that people cite for not wanting to wear masks range from the obvious factors of discomfort (yet, of course, as hyperbolic as “I can’t breathe”, “I’ll pass out”) to outright absurd conspiracy theories, e.g. masks make children more vulnerable to sex trafficking or that the virus doesn’t exist, to other lies like masks make you sick, and can even somehow kill you. The misinformation that is being spread is terrifying because it endangers entire communities (dare I say countries?) and makes swift COVID-19 prevention near impossible. While when it comes to such issues in the U.S. I usually choose to laugh rather than cry, this time it’s different. At the end of the day I don’t know why wearing a mask is an issue at all, really, unless one has a rare legitimate reason.

I know most people already know this, but I think it’s important to reiterate that we wear them not only for ourselves, but also for the protection of others, because they prevent droplets from our breathing, or sneezing, or coughing, or singing, or yelling (as people without masks often appear to be doing) from spreading in the environment. That’s why it is important, when we are around others, that we wear masks, as it’s entirely possible to carry the virus without any symptoms at all. In fact it’s common for children to show few symptoms, or none, while carrying the virus (Yonker), which makes the above clip particularly terrifying because the parents are trying to sue over mask mandates in schools. A school is one of the primary places where we should ensure that masks are being worn at all times. As someone who was until recently a teacher of small children, I have to say that if Taiwanese kiddos can wear masks without a problem, then it shouldn’t be too hard for full grown adults.

Underlying all of these alleged reasons to not wear masks, I believe, is the argument about personal freedoms, that any form of mandate is incompatible with first amendment rights. This article by Professor Emeritus of Government at Wesleyan, John E. Finn, does a great job outlining why that’s not the case, with the court cases to back him up. Let’s just talk about the social contract for a second though. As social animals, we opt to live in groups, among other humans – forming a society. In a society, we generally agree that some form of government is necessary to maintain social order and to organize societal structure. We need a group of people that work to maintain the common good – largely to care for public health and safety. If we want to live in such a society, we must willingly moderate our own behaviors for the benefit of said common good; that is to say we must opt in to the social contract. In most societies we give up our freedom to, say, run around completely naked in public, because it is generally agreed that this doesn’t contribute to the common good, and in fact may be harmful in some way.

Streaking through Taipei is considered indecent exposure.

We all know that it is unlawful to be unclothed in public, and to reveal oneself to others is considered “indecent exposure”, as it may inflict some sort of psychological or emotional harm. Well, when there’s a deadly global pandemic on the loose, it seems to me that the term can also be applied when one is exposing the very orifices responsible for viral spread. If it is possible for someone to be carrying the virus, and therefore contagious, and they are close to others without wearing a mask, then that exposure is indecent. Let’s look at the Merriam-Webster definition, shall we:

Definition of indecent exposure (noun) : intentional exposure of part of one’s body (such as the genitals) in a place where such exposure is likely to be an offense against the generally accepted standards of decency.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Ah, such as the genitals, but not necessarily the genitals. The important part is that the body part is likely to cause “offense against the generally accepted standards of decency”, which amid a pandemic, includes covering your face in public.

Response to the social contract is what differentiates the Western world and the Eastern world at this critical moment in time, and what makes or breaks our preventative measures. In Eastern countries, the culture tends predominantly towards a collective mindset. Each one contributes to the group, and has a duty and responsibility to uphold social harmony and well-being. In the West, individualism reigns, much to our detriment. I’m not saying that individualism is inherently bad (maybe a post for another day), but when we’re looking down the barrel of a pandemic and too-large segments of the population are refusing to get on board with our only preventive measures, it becomes incredibly dangerous.

What we need to do right now is to come together and do our part to stop the virus from spreading. What we need to do right now is not tumble down conspiracy theory rabbit holes that make informing people about the truth extremely difficult – now is not the time for that. If in 2025 when the pandemic is completely over and we’re all vaccinated and they’re still trying to make you put on a mask in the Walmart, then you can be angry and file a lawsuit. But right now hundreds of thousands of people are dying. And we have the power to make that stop by choosing things as simple as wearing a mask, washing our hands, or staying home. The longer we choose to fight the power over something as insignificant as a mask, the longer this whole thing drags out and the more people die.

It WORKS. And it’s POSSIBLE. DON’T GIVE UP! Let’s be vigilant not just about our physical safety measures, but also about the information we consume. Check your sources. Don’t get your information from Reddit, or memes, or QAnon accounts, or the President. In the meantime, a video of over a hundred doctors dropping some truth. Let us remember our healthcare professionals, and give them the respect, support and thanks they deserve for their courage, compassion and strength.

What are your thoughts?