Explained: Why Asian nations aren't ditching the mask just yet
Many countries dropped their COVID-19 pandemic mask requirements months ago. However, it's hard to change habits that have been cemented over the past two years
South Korea dropped indoor masking on Monday. Japan has ditched them outdoors and is getting ready to unmask indoors soon, too. Taiwan is set to jettison its mandate later this month.
Mask mandates, once a ubiquitous feature of the coronavirus pandemic, are finally being let go in several countries in East Asia, where pandemic restrictions have lingered for much longer than in other parts of the world.
Wearing a mask comes with some discomfort, including hindering communication and fogging up glasses. Countries in Southeast Asia and Europe, as well as the United States, abandoned masking requirements months ago.
But even with their governments easing rules, many citizens in East Asia are unlikely to stop wearing masks completely any time soon. Here are some reasons.
Old habits are hard to change
In many parts of Asia, people have been required to wear a mask diligently for more than two years. That has cemented a habit of putting them on regularly, and habits are hard to change.
Mizuki Nishimura, 24, who teaches ballet in Yokohama, Japan’s second-largest city, said that mask wearing had become a reflex for her students, so they continued to wear them even when they were no longer recommended by the school.
“They mask just like they reflexively bow their heads when seeing an elder,” she said. “Without a mask on, they feel something is missing.”
Mask-wearing customs predate COVID-19 in Asia, so the habit took hold more quickly here during the pandemic. As early as the 1918 flu pandemic and, more recently, SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, health officials across the region were able to persuade the public to wear face masks.
Some people in South Korea and Japan have also taken advantage of the fact that they don’t have to wear makeup or smile when they wear a mask. Taking them off therefore comes with some inconvenience.
In Japan, some have called masks “kao pantsu,” or “face pants,” meaning that unmasking would be as embarrassing as taking off underwear in public.
Masks have relieved many South Koreans of the societal pressure to maintain a level of facial beauty, said Sangmin Kim, a scholar in cultural studies at CATS Lab, a research centre in Seoul, who has written about masks. “People have taken comfort in their faces being concealed, and they feel some discomfort about revealing their bare faces.”
Health officials still recommend them
While masks are not strictly required in Japan and South Korea, the countries’ health authorities continue to urge people to wear them, especially indoors. Infections in both countries have declined steadily in the past month, but health officials have warned of the rising risk of reinfection and the possibility of a spike in cases as global travel restrictions ease.
“The danger of COVID-19 has not disappeared yet,” Kim Seong-ho, a senior health official in South Korea, said on Wednesday.
In South Korea, masks are still required on public transit and in health care facilities.
Rather than take their masks off and on, many people do not bother to remove them after hopping off the bus or exiting a hospital in Seoul.
Japanese authorities are still encouraging people to wear a mask indoors even as they say it is no longer necessary to wear them outdoors. (Japan never mandated masks or imposed penalties for not wearing them.
The authorities only recommended them, and wearing masks became an unspoken rule.) Since people usually carry their masks with them wherever they go, they tend to keep them on their faces even when they are outside.
“I’m sure some people think if it’s encouraged indoors, it means there is something to be scared of, so I should leave it on outdoors, too,” said Miki Moro, 30, a job recruiter in Tokyo.
“I am sure there are others who just think it is annoying to take their masks on and off depending on location, so they just leave it on,” she added.
Epidemiological studies have shown that mask use is high in countries that kept infections low throughout the pandemic. Mask mandates have also been shown to significantly slow the spread of the virus in the United States, John Volckens, a public health engineer at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, has said.
The avoidance of other respiratory illnesses, like flu and seasonal allergies, is also a reason some people have decided keep their masks on.
Masks signal respect for others’ well-being
Wearing a mask has also been associated with good etiquette for many people in Asia. It is common courtesy to wear a mask in public to prevent others from getting sick, especially because one never knows who around them might have weakened immune systems or live with someone who is vulnerable.
In crowded spaces, unmasked people stand out.
“You will be stared at if you don’t have your mask on,” said Kazunari Onishi, the author of The Dignity of Masks and an associate professor of public health at St. Luke’s International University in Tokyo.
Kim, the cultural studies scholar, said that he personally continued to wear a mask outside to give off “the image that I am a person who does not cause harm to others” — not necessarily because of his belief in its scientific benefits (though there is some disagreement among experts on whether a mask protects the wearer from infection).
“South Koreans can consider it disrespectful not to wear a mask,” he said. “They place importance in not causing harm to their neighbours.”
Masks protect against the region’s air pollution
Fine dust levels in East Asia have consistently failed to meet international air quality standards over the years. So, people have long been used to wearing a mask to protect against the health effects of the air pollution, such as coughing, sneezing and tightness of the chest.
The dangers of air pollution are sharply felt in South Korea, where masks are a common line of defence on days when fine dust particles form a gray haze in the sky.
Last year, the average concentration of PM 2.5, a dangerous fine particulate, was 18 micrograms per cubic metre, according to the country’s weather authorities, exceeding the five micrograms per cubic metre deemed safe by the World Health Organization.
“The culture of wearing a mask has settled in since fine dust started becoming an issue in the 2010s,” Kim said. Because masks were so widely used before, mask factories in South Korea were better prepared for mass production once the virus broke out in 2019, he added.
In China and India, which have historically recorded some of the worst air pollution levels in the world, health officials have maintained mask mandates to protect against COVID.
John Yoon and Hikari Hida, c.2023 The New York Times Company
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