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.
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.
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