Long before COVID-19 came into existence, wearing face masks has been a custom in Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Although this seems like a simple gesture, it has a significant meaning and interesting history. In densely populated regions like China, infectious diseases like SARS, swine flu, or even influenza, have devastating consequences.
This is why wearing a mask, even for a common cold, is considered a necessary gesture to protect those who are vulnerable rather than just protecting yourself.
Back in 2015, 570 million masks were sold in China alone. In some parts of Asia, it’s considered extremely selfish not to wear a mask because wearing one is a gesture of politeness and indicates your desire to protect others as well as protecting yourself. Wearing masks can also signal other intentions.
In Japan, for example, some healthy individuals wear masks to indicate their desire not to communicate with others around them. Others wear them to avoid harassment in public transport. In Southeast Asia, masks are worn all year round as a protective measure against air pollution which is a potential cause of strokes, lung cancer, heart diseases, and possibly early death.
China is one of the countries facing the worst air pollution in the world. In 2016, China was in second place in total deaths from air pollution with 1.58 million deaths. That’s why many people living or traveling in highly populated and polluted cities wear air-filtering masks.
Another environmental reason for wearing masks in Hay Fever. Hay fever is an allergic response to pollen, which brings with it inflammation in the nose, sneezing, and itching. In Japan, this pollen comes from the Cryptomeria japonica tree, a major source of wood back in the 60s. Thus, to protect themselves from this pollen, people began wearing masks even if they did not show symptoms of any disease.
Wearing masks also became a normal part of everyday life and has been well integrated into society. Sometimes it is paired with sunglasses, other days it is part of fashion and self-expression. Just like T-shirts, some people in Japan, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines decorate their masks with their favorites characters and expressions. They also try different colorful designs and have masks custom-made for certain occasions.
In countries outside South East Asia, people are often judged for wearing masks as if it’s something undesirable or entirely new to the community, or a sign of weakness or lack of freedom. The case is different in Southeast Asia, you’re free to wear a mask anywhere and anytime you want. It is not exactly known when this habit gained the popularity it has today.
Supposedly it dates all the way back to the early 20th century when a devastating influenza pandemic, known as Spanish flu, infected 500 million people and killed between 40 to 50 million of them, becoming more deadly world war 1. Masks were not common back then and people covered their noses and mouths anyway they could with scarves, veils, and handkerchiefs.
The next tragedy, the Great Kanto Earthquake, followed shortly, leaving the skies and air of Japan engulfed in smoke and ashes caused by fire and piles of rubbish. People had to protect their respiratory systems. Then the deadly SARS outbreak of 2002 and swine flu of 2009 sealed the habit of wearing masks one and for all.
Experts and health authorities are currently encouraging the population to wear masks as a protective measure against COVID-19. Thus, the whole world is getting accustomed to this previously unusual but very normal practice.