A few months ago, my classmates and I were asked to write a short op-ed style article for an academic writing class, after which we reviewed each others’ works. One submission stuck out to me. A Japanese student had used the opportunity to express her confusion and, put simply, shock at some “anti-mask” protests that had occurred in Amsterdam shortly beforehand. Although many other classmates had reacted similarly negatively to these protests, her comparisons to the situation in her home country led me to look into the history of mask-wearing in Asia and Europe - and the lessons we could learn now from that history.
Any Google search will yield a variety of articles describing mask-wearing as an established practice in various Asian countries, long before COVID-19 started entering the picture (Jennings, 2020; Wong, 2020). There are many different reasons why masks have become common, if not ubiquitous, in these regions. People wear them during the allergy or flu seasons, when they have a cold themselves, or even against traffic fumes and air pollution (particularly after rapid industrialization developments during the first half of the twentieth century). Since wearing face masks and similar coverings is not out of the ordinary in several of these countries, multiple governments did not feel the need to legally enforce mask-wearing. For example, in Japan, there is still no official rule on masks; however, most adhere to the recommended measure regardless.
Then why are facemasks treated like such unfamiliar and even unwanted objects in parts of Europe and the U.S., despite the fact that air pollution and the common cold very much exist there too? There is plenty of research in cross-cultural psychology that suggests that different kinds of pro- and anti-social behaviors correspond with the degree to which a given society is individualistic or collectivistic in nature (Ramzan & Amjad, 2017; Nozaki, 2018). In other words, does a community reward behavior and values based on individual freedoms and expression (associated with western societies), or rather harmony and concern with the well-being of others (associated with non-western societies)? While there is compelling evidence that would lead one to conclude that Europeans are inherently individualistic while Asians tend to value harmony and collective well-being, such a sweeping, binary division cannot exactly be held to apply perfectly in all European or Asian countries.
A potentially insightful addition to these psychological insights may lie within the contemporary history of both continents, particularly their epidemiological history. Shenglan Tang from the Duke Global Health Institute suggests that the previous experiences of several Asian countries with different pathogen outbreaks have provided governments and policymakers to respond more effectively and efficiently to the outbreak of COVID-19; he adds that these experiences “strengthened cultural norms around protections such as face masks and social distancing” (Penn, 2020). Outbreaks of various kinds, most notably SARS and MERS, proved the importance of testing and the usefulness of digital tools to manage similar future events.
Although these recent events undoubtedly provided policymakers with a knowledge base that has been useful in mitigating the effects of the spread of COVID-19, we could look much further back into history for a better understanding of current social and political developments related to COVID. One especially noteworthy event was the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 (commonly known as the Spanish flu), which may have infected as many as 500 million people (Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). The Spanish flu affected countries all over the world, including Japan and other Asian countries, although it was in Japan that the sale and usage of masks skyrocketed most notably (Ryall, 2020).
All through 2020, many media outlets and governments have described the circumstances of the current pandemic as “unprecedented’’. Of course, this is true to some extent. The world has never been as interconnected as it is today, and the additional factor of today’s technological landscape has had a profound impact on our experience of the pandemic and its resulting socio-political developments. However, it is interesting to consider that during the Spanish flu pandemic, measures like self-isolation and especially mask-wearing were recommended by the vast majority of governments (Little, 2020). And, much like today, these recommendations were not always heeded by everyone: people would poke holes in their masks in order to smoke, complain about the discomfort of wearing them, state that children would be afraid of masked adults, and sometimes claim the masks posed an infringement upon their civil liberties (Little, 2021). The similarities to today’s situation are rather striking.
Unfortunately, the normalcy of face coverings in almost any country over 100 years ago as a simple method to limit the spread of a dangerous disease seems to have been largely forgotten, especially in much of the Western world. In 2020, several articles described the experience of Asian immigrants in Western countries, who report being harassed during the early stages of COVID-19 simply for wearing a mask - doing so made them stand out in communities where mask-wearing was still considered an oddity (Leung, 2020; Wong, 2020). This, combined with ill-informed, xenophobic, and racist attacks on various Asian communities living in Europe and the U.S., not only led to more disinformation, but also to an increased stigma around masks as an “unnatural’’ thing to do.
Wearing masks alone will not solve a pandemic, not even if all citizens take these guidelines very seriously. However, being well-informed about the lessons that various governments have learned from similar situations throughout history could help us improve strategies for presenting information about COVID-19 and determining the most suitable approach with regards to restrictive measures.
Jennings, Ralph (2020, March 11). “Not Just Coronavirus: Asians Have Worn Face Masks for Decades.” Voice of America News. https://www.voanews.com/science-health/coronavirus-outbreak/not-just-coronavirus-asians-have-worn-face-masks-decades
Leung, Hillary (2020, March 12). “Why Wearing a Face Mask is Encouraged in Asia, but Shunned in the U.S.” TIME. https://time.com/5799964/coronavirus-face-mask-asia-us/
Little, Becky (2020, May 6). “When Mask-Wearing Rules in the 1918 Pandemic Faced Resistance.” History Stories. https://www.history.com/news/1918-spanish-flu-mask-wearing-resistance
Little, Becky (2021, January 4). “Mask Slackers and Deadly Spit: The 1918 Flu Campaigns to Shame People Into Following New Rules.” History Stories. https://www.history.com/news/1918-pandemic-public-health-campaigns
Nozaki, Yuki (2018). “Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Association Between Trait Emotional Intelligence and Emotion Regulation in European-American and Japanese Populations.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 130: 150-155.
Penn, Michael (2020, August 12). “How Some Asian Countries Beat Back COVID-19.” Duke Global Health Institute. https://globalhealth.duke.edu/news/how-some-asian-countries-beat-back-covid-19
Ramzan, Nosheen, & Amjad, Naumana (2017). “Cross-Cultural Variation in Emotion Regulation: A Systematic Review.” Annals of King Edward Medical University, vol. 23, no. 1: 77-90.
Ryall, Julian (2020, October 19). “How Japan’s Mask Culture May Have Saved Lives During Coronavirus.” Deutsche Welle. https://www.dw.com/en/how-japans-mask-culture-may-have-saved-lives-during-coronavirus/a-55321518
Taubenberger, J. K., & Morens, D.M. (2006). “1918 Influenza: The Mother of All Pandemics.” Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 12, no. 1: 15-22.
Wong, Brittany (2020, September 18). “Why East Asians Were Wearing Masks Long Before COVID-19.” HuffPost.https://www.huffpost.com/entry/east-asian-countries-face-masks-before-covid_l_5f63a43fc5b61845586837f4