As a Westerner, I’ve always been amused by people wearing facial masks in public. I recall a particular moment in the late 1990s, when I was part of a small group hiking in the Himalayas, at high altitude on a sunny day, in thin and pristine air, and with nary a human in sight. Suddenly, a group of Japanese hikers popped up from behind a crag, fully decked out in rubber gloves and masks.
Living in Asia later, I gradually got used to being around masked faces. Occasionally, I even saw the point — for instance on days when the sandstorms from the Gobi Desert covered Beijing in a rust-coloured haze. But masks weren’t for me.
And then, when I was living in Hong Kong, the SARS epidemic broke out. Within a few days in early 2003, the entire city seemed to be masked. And whenever something becomes ubiquitous, it invariably shapes and reflects culture. This being Hong Kong, girls wore Hello Kitty masks, while adults attached bling to theirs. Some soon had faux-Gucci, faux-Prada and faux-Luis Vuitton gauzes covering their faces, while taxi drivers oddly seemed to dangle their masks from one ear only, lest they obstruct the cigarette smoking. Mask style became self-expression.
Eventually, I strapped one on too — and promptly became an example of one major argument against masks. It was a hot and muggy day, hay fever season had started, and I hadn’t shaved. Within minutes, my face was an itching, scratching, dripping disaster zone, and my unwashed hands fiddled with the mask every which way. The looks I got in the supermarket were categorical. So the mask came off. To this day, I’m amazed I didn’t get infected.
By wearing a mask I’m signalling to strangers on the bus or in the supermarket that I’m trying to protect them. Simultaneously, I’m taking the stigma off those people who wear masks because they know they’re infected.
Nonetheless, when the opportunity came up, my fiancee and I got ourselves a handful of respirators. Because you never know. We’ve carried that stash with us all these years. Now, living in Berlin, we’ve pulled them out again, and we’re thinking about using them finally.
After all, as COVID-19 spreads and still guards so many of its medical secrets, everything is pointing toward the West becoming like the East, with masks becoming the norm. Austria has made them mandatory in public, even though they’re “alien to our culture,” as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz conceded. So have Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Israel and others.
Even the holdouts seem to be headed that way. As recently as February 29, the US Surgeon General tweeted, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” Now he’s apparently reconsidering, as are the White House and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.
Corona debate on droplets and aerosols
Even the World Health Organisation is taking another look. So far, it has been recommending that only healthcare workers and people with symptoms wear masks, whereas everybody else should stick to washing hands and keeping social distance. The logic is in part the same as the surgeon general’s: There are only so many masks to go around, and if random people hoard, those in need may not get them.
The more disquieting reason, as ever with COVID-19, is that we just don’t know enough. There’s a heated and very technical debate raging among scientists about whether SARS-CoV-2 is spread by “droplets” (which don’t travel far) or “aerosols” (which go a lot farther), and about how long the airborne virus can stay infectious while swirling through the air. Surfaces are definitely dangerous; the air less so. But how much less?
Moreover, it’s not clear whether masks would block an airborne virus from coming in. The top-notch N95 respirators worn by surgeons probably do; the standard-issue surgical masks worn by most nurses might; homemade masks might or might not. And all that assumes the masks are worn correctly and responsibly, one single time, and without any finger touching. That rules out young children and possibly, based on experience, me.
In the case of COVID-19, though, this reasoning may be upside down. One problem with the coronavirus is that it’s so often asymptomatic. I wouldn’t necessarily know if I had it, even though I might infect you by exhaling globs of saliva. So a mask on my face wouldn’t primarily have to keep the virus out, but in.
Moreover, by wearing a mask I’m signalling to strangers on the bus or in the supermarket that I’m trying to protect them. Simultaneously, I’m taking the stigma off those people who wear masks because they know they’re infected. If we all put something on, even flimsy bandanas, we’re showing that we’re in this together.
What more of us in the West are now realising is that wearing a mask is the new way of showing respect. This is ironic in places like Germany, which in a bygone era (that is, two months ago) had a debate about whether to ban Muslim women from wearing niqabs in schools. “In an open society, we have to show our faces to talk openly with one another,” the governor of Baden-Wuerttemberg said at the time. Now it’s the other way around. In a resilient and cohesive society, we may have to mask our faces.
Andreas Kluth is a member of Bloomberg’s editorial board.