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A Brief History of Wearing Face Masks in Public

Apr 29, 2020 11:43 AM 2 min read

In his video conference with Chief Ministers, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will continue to be seen even months from now. Notably, he said, it would be seen in how face masks could become “a major part of our lives”.


Indeed, one of the biggest global takeaways of the COVID-19 pandemic might be the omnipresence of wearing face masks in public. In many countries till now, including India and the US, wearing face masks in public was uncommon and even stigmatised. Even in densely polluted cities like Delhi, you could see people walking around in heavy smog with their faces uncaringly exposed. History tells us that this has not always been the case in other regions of the world. 


Why are Face Masks Common in East Asia?

In contrast to this nonchalance, in countries like Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Vietnam, not wearing face masks in public is stigmatised. The reason for this sociocultural polarity is historic in nature. In Japan and China, mask-wearing began becoming mainstream in the early 20th century due to the pneumonic plague. In other parts of East Asia, it became commonplace after the 2003 SARS outbreak, caused by another lethal coronavirus originating from China that destroying health systems in its wake. Citizens from these countries were shattered by that epidemic, and masks became more than personal protective equipment (PPE) - they also became a symbol of personal hygiene, social responsibility and solidarity with healthcare workers.


History Comes in Sequels

Fast-forward to 2020, and the situation is eerily similar to 2003. Only this time, it’s on a much larger scale. Governments around the world are now endorsing face masks, and there’s a likelihood that once the pandemic has died down mask-wearing will become a shared, global custom instead of a regional one.


Some on All is Better than None at All

The scientific efficacy of face masks is actually not well-established. Some experts argue that they’re not perfect in blocking respiratory pathogens. Others say wearing one is better than leaving yourself exposed. What is established, however, is that mandating face masks in public places also  needs to be augmented by other protective measures to be truly effective. These include social distancing norms, rigorous and regular hand-washing, widespread diagnostic testing and well-equipped hospitals and healthcare systems in general.


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