Coronavirus: Going Out Masked, A Question of Culture!
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Culture & Countries
Coronavirus: Going Out Masked, A Question of Culture!
April 28, 2020

Is Wearing a Mask Cultural? 


If you go out without a mask in Hong Kong, Seoul or Tokyo during an epidemic, you risk becoming a “social pariah” when elsewhere, in Europe or the United States for example, it is perfectly acceptable. 

It’s not just a matter of government directives and medical advice, it’s also a matter of culture and history.  

But as the pandemic worsens, are attitudes changing? 

WHO’s Position

At the start of the coronavirus epidemic, the World Health Organization claimed that masks were only worn by the sick and caregivers, and that others did not need them. 

Several arguments were invoked:  

  • The mask is not reliable protection. 
  • Removing it requires special care to avoid hand contamination. 
  • Wearing a mask can create a false sense of security. 

Wearing a Mask in Asia 

However, in some Asian countries, the populations of large cities wear masks to protect themselves from others but also to protect others against themselves, in a spirit of solidarity because everyone can be a carrier of the virus, including healthy people. In some areas, you can even be arrested and punished if you don’t wear a mask. 

The Mask, a Cultural Norm

In Asia, wearing a mask is a cultural norm. Many Asians are used to wearing masks when sick or during hay fever season; it is indeed rude to sneeze or cough openly. In large polluted cities, the mask is also a way to protect yourself from pollution. 

The SARS virus outbreak of 2003 left painful memories in the Asian population and made them realize the importance of wearing a mask when Western societies have not experienced an epidemic of this magnitude for a long time. 

The Mask, a Social Boost 

The ubiquitous wearing of a mask acts as a visual reminder of the dangers of the virus; it could have the effect of a “behavioral boost” for better hygiene. 

It’s like a ritual or a uniform! And you have to live up to what the uniform represents, which is to say, more hygienic behavior: not touching your face, avoiding crowded places, respecting social distancing. Every little bit counts in the world’s war on the virus. 

“We can’t say if the masks are effective, but we assume they have some effect because that’s the protection we give to healthcare workers,” said Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong. 

The risks of shortage 

Some countries like Japan, Indonesia and Thailand are facing shortages; South Korea had to ration the masks. 

We can then fear that people will reuse them, which is unhygienic, buy them on the black market, or wear homemade masks, of little use because of inferior quality. 

“Masked” Cultural Values 

Discrimination on Both Sides

People who do not wear masks in Asia are stigmatized, to the point of being avoided or even denied access to certain shops and buildings. 

In Hong Kong, publications point to maskless Westerners congregating during nightlife, or criticize expats and tourists for not taking sufficient precautions. 

In countries where mask-wearing is not the norm, such as the West, those who wear masks are sometimes viewed with condescension. The fact that many of these mask wearers are Asian suggests that it is specific to Asia. 

The Underlying Cultural Values

In some Western countries, wearing a mask can be considered an infringement of individual freedom, a bit like tracking patients with geolocation. But mentalities are starting to change: if the mask is worn by everyone, then there is no longer any discrimination and if it allows people to get out of confinement, it can give back a form of lost freedom! 

Cultural values ​​are very much behind the wearing of masks: a sense of the collective and respect for authority on the one hand, freedom and human rights on the other. The value “Equality” also enters the debate when certain municipalities are prohibited from imposing the wearing of masks in the name of territorial equality. 

We can also see the pragmatism opposing scientific theory: some have nothing to lose by wearing a mask even if its effectiveness has not been demonstrated, others remain skeptical if it is not scientifically proven. 

The Evolution of Positions

Are the companies that advocate the wearing of masks right the whole time? Increasingly, experts are questioning the initial position of WHO. As the scale of this pandemic increases, our behavior may change further. 

In China, an estimated one-third of positive cases show no symptoms. On the cruise ship that docked in Yokohama, half of the 600 positive cases found on board did not show any symptoms. A similar proportion of asymptomatic cases has been reported in Iceland which tests a higher proportion of citizens than anywhere else in the world. 

But are these “silent carriers” contagious?  

A recent Chinese study finds that cases of infection that show only mild symptoms or no symptoms are highly contagious and may even be responsible for up to 80% of positive virus cases. 

Maybe if everyone wore a mask, these silent carriers wouldn’t turn into propagators? 

Today, knowledge about this epidemic is still scarce. So, when in doubt, isn’t it better to use a mask? It is also necessary to recall the conditions of use and the arguments cited above: wearing a mask does not replace other “barrier gestures”. 

In the absence of scientific certainties, cultural values strongly influence behavior! 

About author



Since 2003, Akteos has guided its clients in a multi-faceted world where globalization and new communication technologies bring cultures together and confront our values. With its 30 correspondents around the world and its 300 intercultural consultants, Akteos offers training courses in more than 100 countries as well as in management, communication and international development.

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