• Doctors here and in the West are trained in Western medicine, yet disagree on whether masks protect us against Covid-19
  • Social distancing is the norm in the West, where Asians in masks have been targeted. Are cultural differences at work?
Fans wear masks to a concert at the venue, Hidden Agenda: This Town Needs, on February 27 amid a coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

Living in close proximity with China, Hongkongers were among the first people to be exposed to the threat of the coronavirus epidemic two months ago. It was still considered a regional outbreak by the World Health Organisation then, which also stressed that it could be well contained. Hong Kong reported its first cases of coronavirus on January 22. The following day, China announced a lockdown on Wuhan, a city of over 10 million people.

I was on a work trip in Europe in early February. Waiting for my flight back to Hong Kong at Heathrow Airport, I struck up a chat with a British gentleman who asked me why in Asia people seemed so nervous about the virus. I replied that the disease was extremely contagious and could be deadly.

The gentleman said, "Well it is just another flu, I can't imagine any other country could close down a city of 10 million." "Don't you feel a bit concerned?" I asked. He said, "Not really." I joked, "Oh, you guys are strong!"

Not quite. The virus spread fast in Europe after mid-February and now America is reporting the highest number of confirmed cases in the world. Italy has the highest death toll, surpassing China. Death rates have become alarming in a number of Western countries, including Spain.

Anyone who has been following closely the development of the pandemic would not fail to have noticed different scenes in the West and the East. In places such as Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea, people are wearing surgical masks, which were often secured with great effort and cost.

Since late January, the talk of the town in Hong Kong has been where to get masks. Last month, the government was criticised for failing to stock enough masks for medical staff in public hospitals.

Why I'd rather be in Hong Kong than anywhere else right now

Thus, a slogan often heard during Hong Kong's fight against the epidemic is "Hong Kong people rely on themselves". Seizing on the great demand for surgical masks in Hong Kong and elsewhere, investors and entrepreneurs have got into the business of producing masks. Dozens of enterprises have applied to the government for a subsidy for mask production.

On the other side of the globe, Europeans and Americans seem to care much less about masks, even now. Social distancing and home isolation are the two most mentioned government strategies for fighting the disease, not wearing marks.

In contrast, leading medical doctors in Hong Kong have relentlessly advised people to wear masks. Time and again they have urged residents not to slack off.

Doctors in Hong Kong have explained why the mask helps: surgical masks have three layers, and while it is true that the second layer cannot protect against minute viral particles, the first water-repellent layer can fend off virus-contaminated droplets. Of course, handling the mask hygienically and cleaning hands frequently would definitely help reduce the risk. Yet, in the West, people are often told the mask won't help. Not only that, it might even act as a reservoir of germs.

Doctors both here and in the West are trained in Western medical science, yet hold very different views and articulate very different discourses. There have been increasing discussions about these differences. But why is there such a gap? Is it medical or cultural?

Culture is fluid, yet cultural conceptions can die hard. A certain idea can be so deeply ingrained in people that even a highly contagious, mysterious and deadly disease can't loosen its hold. Indeed, to many in the West, the mask itself represents sickness (you put it on only when you have symptoms), and does not prevent sickness. This is of a piece with the World Health Organisation's advice on when to wear masks, but Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was widely criticised in Hong Kong for citing such advice.

As fear of coronavirus spread in the West, some targeted and vented their frustration on Asians wearing masks, who were considered walking symbols of disease. Such aggressive behaviour was fuelled by anxiety, unclear information and cultural bias. People needed to pin the blame on someone, and in this case, the racial "other" was targeted.

Coronavirus triggers ugly rash of racism as 'Yellow Peril' ideas return

Indeed, the first impression the West got of the coronavirus was that it is a Chinese, if not Asian, virus. But in this age of globalisation, everything cross borders. Countries around the world are now closing borders to stop the spread. But we are not going to restrict travel forever.

In a time of human isolation, we should still get across borders the message that cultural differences " with regard not only to masks, but also handshakes, hugs, kisses, self-discipline and racial bias " germinate into very real differences in health crisis management.

Yuk Wah Chan, a trained anthropologist, is associate professor in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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