HONG KONG — To mask or not to mask... That’s still the question? Seriously?
It shouldn’t be, not when a lethal virus might be a sneeze, a cough, or simply a breath away. Not when the pandemic has killed nearly a half-million people worldwide, including more than 124,000 in the United States — and several states are spiking.
People here in Hong Kong understand this and wonder: Why, after so much misery, are millions of Americans so clueless?
This is a perspective from a masked metropolis, a semi-autonomous region of China where people started wearing facial coverings back in January, not long after news spread of a mysterious outbreak in Wuhan, only about 570 miles away. With memories of SARS and other deadly viruses, Hongkongers didn’t wait for a government directive to start masking up.
Masks really do work
Masks work. Masks have helped Hong Kong suppress this plague. Hong Kong is essentially Asia’s version of New York City — a global hub that is similar in population, density, and reliance on mass transit. Yet while New York has buried tens of thousands of its residents, Hong Kong has recorded only seven COVID-19 deaths out of about 1,200 total cases. Masks are a key reason why.
And yet, America doesn’t get it. The inane, disheartening debate is heard in practically every vicinity of every state. Millions of Americans prudently mask up — and millions pigheadedly, selfishly refuse. As former baseball pro Aubrey Huff put it: He'd "rather die of coronavirus than live the rest of my life in fear and wear a mask.” ”
Which raises the question of whether such people would sacrifice mom and dad in their valiant struggle against public health.
Masks are not the only reason for Hong Kong’s success; strong border controls, vigilant contact tracing, and targeted quarantine are vitally important. But masks are the one tool that is easily applied elsewhere.
Facial coverings helped limit both the contagion and economic damage in Hong Kong. Residents here have never received blanket stay-at-home orders; most shops and restaurants have remained open. In May, children returned to classrooms for the first time since January — providing that they wear masks, as do their teachers.
Early this year, even before there was a run on toilet paper and disinfectant, surgical masks were hard to come by. One morning I arrived at a local pharmacy two hours before its scheduled opening — and found 24 people already in line. When the doors opened, the length of the queue had tripled — but the store had only 20 boxes of masks, one per customer. Oh well.
Asia was on high alert while the rest of the world seemed as diffident as President Donald Trump. In late January, when the mask shortage was front-page news in Hong Kong, my wife bought top-shelf N95 masks while traveling through Singapore. She found them at a 7-Eleven.
With rubber band straps and a tight fit, the N95 proved uncomfortable when I nervously shopped for groceries. Later, like the locals, I opted for the simpler surgical masks. More recently, the Hong Kong government has sent washable, reusable masks to every resident who requests them. These cloth masks can be augmented with inserts such as a coffee filter.
Funny, but only a year ago this same government tried to ban facial coverings that hid identities at massive pro-democracy street protests. Now that Beijing is again pushing for greater control, the protests are back — and the masks are all the more vital as social distancing recedes.
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The city’s contribution to the pro-mask argument now includes a study from the University of Hong Kong laboratory, where researchers studied virus transmission in two groups of hamsters, some infected and some not. Researchers found that cages shrouded in mask material could reduce the rate of infection by 50 percentage points.To which, I suspect, many Hongkongers would react with the Cantonese version of “Duh.”
In Hong Kong, wearing a mask in a pandemic is as political as using an umbrella in the rain. As I grew accustomed to the practice, I found myself puzzling over by news reports from home. I noticed how questions were often framed in terms of the individual: Will a mask really protect me? What about my liberties?
American struggle for individualism
To many Americans, the mask is a challenge to the ethos of rugged individualism: A jutting chin is macho; put a mask on it and you’re a wuss. Conversely, the act of wearing a mask may be dismissed as liberal “virtue signaling.”
Asia’s mentality, rooted in part in the communitarian Confucian traditions, is more about "we" than "me." Here our masks are tools that work together to help us stay healthy. Just seeing the mask is a reminder of the risk we share and might inspire another squirt of sanitizer.
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Perversely, Trump’s disdain for the mask has made the pandemic a battleground of tribal politics. He long ago missed his chance to unite Americans against the virus. He could have enlisted his red-capped loyalists with the masses who have heeded the warnings of public health experts. Instead of insisting that the virus would magically disappear, or that concern was a “hoax” designed to damage him politically, the commander in chief could have ordered the mass production of masks as a wall against the "invisible enemy.” And he could have claimed that he’d make China pay for it.
But here we still are, with the president still shunning the mask, and Americans still jutting their chins — some covered, some not — and still arguing about masks as the carnage keeps mounting.
Scott Duke Harris is a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and the San Jose Mercury News. He lives in Hong Kong.