Behind The Mask

In the wake of a pandemic like SARS or Coronavirus, the surgical mask is a misunderstood accessory.

by Stranger’s Guide

In the West, the surgical mask is a required part of the doctor’s toolkit, a must-have protection for the laborer, and even a sometime fashion accessory. In the East it protects against pollution, catching communicable diseases, and is a function of politeness to stop the wearer from transmitting a cold or flu to others. But despite its functional, varied uses, never has the mask been more misunderstood. With the spread of coronavirus COVID-19, mask-wearers have become targets of xenophobia. Why is the surgical mask so thoroughly misjudged?


The practice of wearing a surgical mask in public first became widespread in Japan in the early 20th century, when an influenza pandemic swept around the world, killing over 20 million people. The masks were brought out again during subsequent influenza outbreaks, as well as after natural disasters when the air was contaminated with dust and ash. Nowadays, slipping on a mask when you have a cold or the flu is simply seen as good manners, similar to covering your mouth with your hand when you cough. Masks have become popular not only in Japan, but in other East Asian countries like China and Korea as well.

Japanese Consulate, NY, 2015

Enter the face mask, an accessory ripe for the market in these dystopian times. People who live in desert areas have long known to cover their mouths and protect their lungs from dust. But in the past few years, a handful of companies have started making air filtration masks engineered specifically for both fashion and function. 

Vox, 2019

Surgical masks are not designed or certified to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants. These particles are not visible to the naked eye but may still be capable of causing infection. Surgical masks are not designed to seal tightly against the user’s face. During inhalation, much of the potentially contaminated air can pass through gaps between the face and the surgical mask and not be pulled through the filter material of the mask. 

US Occupational Safety and Health Administration

As Hong Kong treads gingerly in the grip of the coronavirus outbreak, with most avoiding going out and office staff told to work from home, negative sentiments against one group of people are more pronounced than ever. 
The wariness of mainland Chinese comes against the backdrop of soaring numbers of infection across the border. As of Monday, more than 17,000 cases have been reported in mainland China, with over 360 deaths. Hong Kong recorded its 15th confirmed case on Sunday. Analysts said while it was understandable that people would want to isolate themselves from mainlanders to reduce risks of infection, in Hong Kong, the situation had been politicised by government opponents.

South China Morning Post, February 3, 2020



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North America

Double, Double, Toil & Trouble

Herbs and spices have historically been associated with witchcraft. For example, L.W. de Laurence, an early 1900s American author and publisher on the occult (who also sold magical and occult goods by mail order), wrote the book Albertus Magnus: Egyptian Secrets, White and Black Art for Man and Beast. In it, he recounts the recipe for a poultice to be used if your son or daughter was possessed.

“A Good Stomach Plaster for a Bewitched Child.”

“Take a little of the oil of almonds, a little deer’s tallow, as much of rose vinegar and one ounce of caraway seed. All these articles pounded together, put upon a blue paper, and lay it upon the child’s stomach.”

Laurence goes on to say that the poultice should then be buried with the child’s shirt “noiselessly, before sunrise, and under an alderwood shrub.”

So now you know…