OPINION25 September 2020

Masking up: Semiotics of social responsibility and cohesion

Asia Pacific Covid-19 Europe Latin America Middle East and Africa North America Opinion UK

What can the different approaches to mask wearing during the pandemic in China, Singapore, the US and the UK tell us about those cultures? By Shilpi Sud, Danielle Hong, Shijie Wang and RiAn Quek.

Masks have been an integral part of our history. An object of disguise during the early hunting and gathering period, masks became a spiritual symbol for the pagan believer and an artifact of performance in contemporary plays.

Recent times saw the metamorphosis of masks to a symbol of political and social movements. The ‘black bloc’ protest against corporate globalisation or the occupy movement demonstrates the significance of masks as a symbol and tool that allows individuals to participate in a collective while maintaining anonymity.

In the medical arena, face masks find their roots in the Spanish influenza of 1918/19, donning the avatar of an armor guarding against deadly viruses.

Today’s pandemic has made masks mandatory. From the sick to the healthy, the medical professional to the common man on the street, everyone needs to wear masks.

However, across the globe, owing to historical and cultural differences, countries have reacted differently to this mandate. While some countries saw the act of masking up as their civic duty, others felt a fear of loss of distinctiveness, and self-expression with masks.

Looking into the assimilation journey of masks in China, its first adoption to protect against diseases can be traced back to the Manchurian plague of 1910. Since then, masks have come to signify the idea of collective wellbeing.

Rooted in the Confucian teachings that individual status is determined through “one’s unity (or harmony) with external authorities of power”, the idea of collective wellbeing is integrated within the understanding that “every individual is an element within a larger familial, social and political whole”.

So, when the  pandemic hit the nation, the Chinese authorities adopted a narrative known to bring out the collective among its people. A war was declared on Covid-19, and the public was termed as “the most beautiful countermarching people who fight at the frontline”. A sense of solidarity was formed. The entire nation was mobilised to follow the voice of authority and work in unity with government’s advice.

The impact of such messaging not only ensured quick adoption of masks, but also helped in asking people to choose their masks responsibly and morally – leave surgical masks and respirators for health works.

Much like China, in Singapore the onus fell onto the state to push for nationwide behaviour change. As the nation’s lockdown began, a new ruling made masking up mandatory and fines were put in place for offenders.

While the fines were unable to compel people to adhere to this new rule as the country saw 150 people pay fines in just two days, it was the effort of citizen journalists that brought real behaviour change.

Cases of those refusing to wear masks were highlighted prominently across media by citizen journalists. Such monitoring inculcated a desire to be a team player who is fulfilling civic duty rather than be called out for being arrogant and uncompliant.  

To sum it up, in Asian countries like China and Singapore, people wore masks not only to fend off diseases but also to symbolise a sense of shared fate, mutual obligation and civic duty expected of each individual.

The western narrative on masks is a different one. With media headlines such as “I will be not be masked, tested, tracked or poisoned”, masks are viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

The skepticism to adopt masks can be traced back to the founding principles of occidental culture. Western civilization prospered on the fundamental idea of liberty and freedom, advocating that interests of the individual should be given precedence over those of the state or a social group.

Citizen’s in western countries are primed to become self-reliant, valuing beliefs that support personal freedom, independence and success. Relationships with others are built on attitudes such as exchange, cooperation or competition.

Thus, in countries like the UK and US, in some cases the conversation on the mask has digressed from ‘protect from virus’, and has become a symbol of threat to personal liberty, self-expression and economic advancement. Recent protests in London and Florida are a clear example of this narrative.

Acceptance of masks is perceived as a sign of submissiveness, passivity, and weakness – codes that contradict every guiding principle of an individualistic society.

Thus, adoption of masks may be more territorial in nature than expected. While collective societies find it easy to assimilate this new behaviour by looking at it as an act of benevolence and goodwill, individualistic societies see it as a hindrance to self-expression and distinctiveness.

In either scenario, it is a readily accepted conclusion that masks will continue to be a mainstay as the virus continues to mutate and spread. But the future of masks will differ basis the configuration of the society. 

Shilpi Sud, Danielle Hong, Shijie Wang and RiAn Quek are members of the culture team at Quantum.

1 Comment

4 weeks ago

An interesting thesis, but I'd question the conclusions regarding the UK at least. There does appear to be a section of the UK population (from a variety of fairly disparate groups) who are determined not to wear masks, seeing them as either an unnecessary imposition, and/or an infringement of civil liberties. These people are quite clearly in the minority however (see: https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/face-masks-becoming-normal-flashpoint-while-covid-secure-behaviours-sticking for proportions abiding by rules concerning the wearing of masks in July, vs. April). The relatively low levels of mask wearing in the early stages of the pandemic versus the reality on the ground later could be viewed just as easily (or more convincingly I believe) in terms of a population willing to observe whatever the rules happen to be at that given moment, according to the latest government pronouncements (masks were deemed unnecessary to begin with, according to official advice; the rules have changed subsequently). Indeed, the same research referenced above has nearly 4 in 5 Brits saying they would live with wearing masks on a long-term basis, if it was deemed necessary to do so. Whilst certain aspects of the media seem intent on fomenting ill-feeling towards COVID-related restrictions, you shouldn't confuse what you read in the press (or, indeed, what the Prime Minister opines upon) with what the British general public think, feel or are actually doing during the pandemic. Neither is the UK the same thing as the US; it would be a shame to make the same mistake that the West has made repeatedly about the East historically, and lump us together as if we thought, and acted, as one group.

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