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Maskaphobia and the real contagion

Updated: May 28, 2020

Ginger froze for a couple of seconds. I have been feeding the orange cat at the foot of our public housing flat every day for a couple of years. Usually, she’d get up, yawn, stretch, amble towards me.

This time round, she did not. She recoiled. Not until I crouched next to her, lowered my cloth mask, and meowed, that she recognised me and relaxed, brushing herself against my calf. That was the first time I had worn a mask in her presence.

If a tabby needed to see my face to be at ease, what more fellow humans? I realise there and then how those two seconds encapsulate the bollixed-up world we live in right now – and why a mask is not just a tool but has also become a loaded symbol for our COVID 19 times. Its ubiquity guarantees its mythopoeic place in the pandemic story.

It’s tempting to compare the humble mask’s primacy to that held by the more dramatic-looking beaked mask worn by plague doctors in Europe in the 17th century. The latter was meant to protect the physician from miasma. It was believed that the bubonic plague was spread through noxious air, which would mess up one’s bodily fluids. The beak-shaped nose would be laced with pungent perfumes in order to expel the bad air. Of course, it didn’t work.

By contrast, today’s mask does work, be it an N95 respirator, a surgical mask or a cloth one. It’s mandatory to wear a mask out in the public in Singapore, especially when it is apparent that the coronavirus can be transmitted by people who are asymptomatic. Singaporeans, by and large, put on masks dutifully. This can be attributed to the fear of infection, but also to the fine of SGD300 (AUD325) for those caught bare-faced, and SGD1,000 (AUD1,084) for repeat offenders.

Until a vaccine is found, you’d think it would be prudent to don a mask whenever you step out the door. Oddly, no, in some parts of the world.

To wear or not to wear – that has become a hot potato, exemplified by the rise of so-called “maskaphobia,” with many incidents targeting East Asians. The real contagion? Prejudice, fuelled by nativism and scaremongering.

Maskaphobia could be as tone-deaf as a Canadian reporter who tweeted “Hopefully ALL I got today was a haircut,” together with a selfie taken with his Asian barber who was masked. Or it could be unnerving as some nincompoops in Manchester who drove past two Chinese students who wore masks, sneezed at them, laughed, before driving away. Or it could be insidious, erupting in unprovoked assaults, such as how a masked Asian woman was jumped upon by a man who called her “diseased” in a New York subway station.

This belies a century of cultural myopia. Sociologists Adam Burgess and Mitsutoshi Horii trace the custom of face mask-wearing to the early 20th century, beginning with the 1918 flu pandemic which wiped out between 20 million and 40 million people.

In Japan and its East Asian neighbours, wearing face masks is part of the “hygiene culture,” honed in the wake of outbreaks like the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, avian flu in 2004, and swine flu in 2009. Masks are also popular as a result of environmental pollution, and are worn by cough-and-cold sufferers seeking to avoid passing germs to others. For Singaporeans, masks have been our safeguard against the seasonal haze as a result of slash-and-burn farming in the region.

Others cited the East Asians’ shared philosophy in Taoism and Asian medicine where breath or energy (qi) is a central precept. The aversion to toxic air (bad qi) thus explains the need for face coverings. As ritual, wearing a mask is a courtesy, an act of responsibility, a collective good. As utility, it is the precise obeisance to medical truth.

Disturbing then is how the mask is vilified in some quarters. Some say it advertises illness and subterfuge. Others complain it’s a nuisance, a barrier to authentic selves.

In America, the mask is a flash point, with some braying that executive orders requiring people to wear it as an infringement of “individual freedoms and liberties.” A security guard was shot dead for not allowing a customer’s daughter to enter the store because she was not wearing a mask. In defiance of lockdown orders, armed protestors stormed Michigan’s state capitol in late April, jammed together and unmasked, howling into the faces of police officers. Conservative pundits are also busy recasting masks as an instrument to exert “social control over large populations” through “fear and intimidation.”

Antipathy to mask-wearing goes all the way to the top. President Donald Trump’s mask-denial, rooted in hubris, exposes the schism between science and optics, fact and wilful negligence. Mask-wearing does not fit into his narrative of projecting strength and invincibility. That narrative is deadly. “The irony of life,” to quote Marie Lu from her novel The Rose Society, “is that those who wear masks often tell us more truths than those with open faces.” This is apposite when it comes to describing bald-faced liars.

The mask, hence, does not have to denote anonymity or deracination. Masks now come in an array of patterns, such as kawaii characters Doraemon and Hello Kitty. You can say it’s a development of the Asian “smog couture,” coined in response to stylish respiratory masks, such as riot-gear rebreathers and Darth Vader-esque ventilators, paraded at the 2014 China Fashion Week. As recent as February this year, French designer Marine Serre unveiled a range with matching face masks at the Paris Fashion Week.

So, let’s face it, this pandemic is not going away any time soon, and any of us could be a potential vector of the disease.

In solidarity with first responders everywhere, the least we can do is: Mask up and protect one another – against bigotry, stupidity, the virus. To borrow from Descartes, larvatus prodeo, or “masked, I advance.”

And, oh, Ginger recognises me now, my face half-masked.

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