Face masks are considered by many a useful way to stop the contraction and spread of the new coronavirus. The tiny surgical aids are less common in Western countries despite growing outbreaks in Europe and the United States. But its use has exploded in Asia. That’s because Asians, especially in Japan, China and Taiwan, have worn masks for a host of cultural and environmental reasons, including non-medical ones, since at least the 1950s.
Japanese wear masks when feeling sick as a courtesy to stop any sneezes from landing on other people. Japanese women mask their faces on days when they don’t have time to put on makeup. Philippine motorcycle riders wear masks to deflect vehicular exhausts in heavy traffic. In Taiwan, citizens say masks keep their faces warm in the winter and offer a sense of protection from air pollution, including any airborne germs.
Masks have become so popular that some manufacturers make them purely for fashionable use, with no protective function.
“In Asia it’s a bigger thing to be wearing the mask in Asia because it’s already ingrained in their culture to do it under other circumstances a lot more than here in the United States,” said Bradley Sutton, an American who once lived in Japan.
Sutton is watching e-commerce mask orders surge now in his role as training director with Helium 10, a California company that provides software to Amazon sellers.
Masks became a regular part of the street scene in parts of Asia after the deadly severe outbreak of acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) that started in China in 2002 before spreading to Singapore and Taiwan over the following year. Today manufacturers in East Asia are pumping out 10 to 20 million units per month.
The SARS outbreak was a “turning point,” for Asia, said Chen Yih-chun, director of the National Taiwan University Hospital Center for Infection Control in Taipei. Before that, she said, Taiwanese saw masks as a stigma marking them as severely ill.
“Why we always mention the SARS matter is because during SARS and before that to wear a mask was impossible and patients didn’t want to cooperate,” Chen said.
But Japanese had worn them even in the 1950s as a safeguard against rising air pollution, a byproduct of industrialization. Now people who feel just “under the weather” in Japan wear them to be polite, Sutton said.
Chinese youth wear masks too to build a “social firewall” against being approached by other people, perhaps in the Shanghai metro system, cultural news and analysis website China Under The Radar said in a March 2019 commentary.
The website credits masks further with hiding people’s identities. To that end, the black face mask became a symbol of last year’s Hong Kong protests attended by citizens hoping to avoid detection by police or their employers. Masks worn in traditional Chinese opera historically hid performers’ identity, the commentary says.
In Taiwan, older people add sunglasses and sun hats to masks to obscure their entire faces. The full blockade wards off sunburns and, some users say, stops common air pollution. High-tech pollution barrier masks are a norm in China’s major cities.
The common use of masks in Asia now goes beyond official health guidance as panic spreads about catching the coronavirus and people already find masks acceptable. In Taiwan, as well as South Korea, the rage in mask buying has prompted rationing.
Governments in Singapore and Taiwan recommend masks primarily for people who are already sick. The World Health Organization says healthy people need not wear masks unless caring for someone with the new coronavirus. COVID-19 has sickened about 119,000 people worldwide and killed nearly 4,300.
Common surgical masks stop only droplets from the mouth and nose, not airborne germs.
Taiwan Health and Welfare Minister Chen Shih-chung advises against masks for healthy people unless they’re in crowds, where someone might cough or sneeze.
“We’re still saying that healthy people basically don’t need to wear face mask, but we still want to advise that once you reach a crowded place for a long time, to wear a mask can protect yourself and protect other people,” Chen said.
In the streets of Taipei almost every second person wears a mask and on public transit nine in 10 if not more.
Hospitals and some schools in Taiwan require that anyone who enters wear a mask.
Asians who don’t normally wear masks are using them now to avoid being seen as dangers to the crowds. “I suppose wearing a mask, especially when I occasionally cough due to giving a lesson after some consecutive hours, makes others feel safe,” said a Taipei middle school teacher who started to use them just this year. “It's not just for myself, but a way to decrease the fear of people around me.”