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  • Mei Anne Foo

#Hashtag: Masks For All

Are we trying to mask our fear of COVID-19 or should we fear wearing the mask?

mask covid19 coronavirus pandemic

After two months of having to onboard and work from home, I stepped into the office as an employee for the first time on 18 May 2020, a few days after Level 2 (New Zealand’s penultimate level of severity in managing the COVID-19 outbreak) was announced.

The Friday before, one of my Kiwi colleagues said on Skype, “Don't forget to wear a mask on Monday morning.”

Obviously, being the good (and gullible?) Asian that I am, I wore a mask to work on Monday. Even though, I admit, I normally don’t. I went out on Sunday for a walk around a nearby lake without a mask on and noticed nobody in this country wears one either, except for maybe that one person—who, you've guessed it, is Asian.

But for the sake of my non-Asian colleague and his rather odd request, I donned a mask provided by my Asian flatmate who had plenty on hand.

Turns out, it was a joke. I really don’t understand Kiwi humour at this point. But hey, he fooled me for sure. Guess I was the joke?

But was it too soon? I don’t know. I wasn’t offended or anything. I guess I found it a bit funny how he got me. Still, whether one should wear a mask or not is a topic hotly contested at this very moment. And the divide is obvious: Easterners with their cute, often-handmade masks on and Westerners objecting the face wear with much warfare.

I guess in the West (or those who adopt Western-thinking), masks do portray a powerful, often-menacing meaning that makes some people reluctant to use them, even to defend against a deadly virus. In the US, because of the country's history with the Ku Klux Klan and other crime-related parallels, I see why they would not quite trust someone behind a mask.

Then there are those who, like anti-vaxxers, simply value their freedom and associate mask-wearing as government control. #MyBodyMyChoice, they’d say.

Though I associate myself as someone who mostly thinks like a Westerner, the reasons why I am mask-averse is none of the above. I am simply lazy and it’s not really required of me in New Zealand anyway. Yet in most parts of Asia, everyone wears a mask by defaultit is seen as safer and more considerate.

The broad assumption in Asia is that anyone could be a carrier of COVID-19 or any type of diseases for that matter. Therefore, in the spirit of solidarity and community, people wear masks to protect others from themselves, and vice versa. Easterners are generally more cautious when it comes to their health and safety anyway. In Singapore, which used to discourage the public from wearing masks due to some people's hoarding tendencies, it's now compulsory to wear one outside or risk a fine of S$300. Ah, I miss that fine country.

Here, in New Zealand, the government is holding back on advising people to wear masks because of the lack of scientific consensus and clinical trials. Just like the divide in the cultural meaning of wearing a mask, scientifically, there’s also great divide in the proving and disproving of the effectiveness of wearing a mask in stopping transmission of the virus.

Unfortunately, covering the face seems to have more than one meaning or effect for everyone. Though, don't we all wear a mask anyway?

"The human face is, after all, nothing more nor less than a mask." – Agatha Christie.

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