With the rise of the coronavirus, it is not only the protective face masks themselves that have come to the forefront of (Western) people’s awareness, but also the debates about their effectiveness and relevance to social cohesion. In East Asia, the use of face masks has been nearly ubiquitous since the outbreak of the pandemic, as it is considered hygiene etiquette and a symbol of collective solidarity. Also, mask-wearing might already be culturally ingrained due to past health-related or environmental events. In the West, meanwhile, it has been a different story.
From initial governmental advice such as from the U.S. Surgeon General to refrain from buying masks as ‘they are not effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus’ to the continuous reluctance of people to wear masks unless they absolutely have to, it has been a rocky road for mask-wearing to become more widely accepted in Western societies. At the same time, the vehemence with which proponents of mask-wearing denounce the naysayers has also increased to a degree that may raise some eyebrows.
While the degree of effectiveness of face masks continues to be debated, there is now scientific support for the benefits of wearing masks in fighting the spread of COVID-19. That means we should all do it, especially when we find ourselves in crowded public places and cannot avoid close proximity to other people. But if you think about it, do we really need the proverbial go-sign from science before even considering the notion of wearing a mask when we go outside? Do we resist implementing this feasible and simple step -a step that may be crucial in winning the fight against the pandemic- so much that we need peer-reviewed papers and subsequent government regulation first? Please do not misunderstand me: I highly encourage the scientific pursuit of empirical proof that mask-wearing is beneficial. But why does it require undeniable proof to make us change such a small element in our behavior, if there is even the slightest chance said change could be helpful and socially responsible? I think this kind of socially indifferent (or even antagonistic) behavior is a disaster. It is easy to blame sluggish official guidance and the absence of sufficient “role models” for the continuing lack of widespread mask-wearing in the West, but the culprit is more likely our culture’s obsession with individualism and freedom, not a shortage of information or awareness. Once again, the West could learn something from the East.