Just a little story about how I lost my assumptions about mask culture.
Here in Vancouver, over the past twenty years, it used to be very common to see people from Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Korea, wearing masks out in public. I have to admit that for a long time I felt it was kind of arrogant like you were wearing a mask because you didn’t want to contract something from me. To the naked eye, it didn’t look like folks were vulnerable. It looked like healthy, mostly young people were wearing masks to send a signal that somehow it wasn’t safe to be around me.
Last year, however, I was in Japan, and one day, crossing the street in Shinagawa, I saw tons of people wearing masks and I turned to my Japanese friend and straight out asked her “what’s the deal with everyone wearing masks?”
And she matter of factly replied “of course…because they are feeling a little bit sick and they don’t want anyone else to get infected.”
This realization hit me so hard that I may have actually stopped in my tracks, halfway across the street, on one of the busiest pedestrian crossings in Tokyo, upsetting the flow of pedestrians moving out from the busy Shinagawa station and causing a bit of grumbling from the folks behind me.
I was simultaneously overcome with gratitude, admiration, and shame. That was the beginning of my education in how key consideration for other people is as a rule in Japan. In general, folks there try to respect each other’s space, not to make noises too loud, to talk on their phones while on a train, to wait in traffic when there is a delay, or patiently line up for a ticket booth or a train. In a culture like that, of course wearing a mask is about consideration for other people.
These days I am wearing a mask when I am in my local village or in the city, and because of this particular epiphany, I find that when doing so I am a lot more conscious of my neighbours and the strangers around me. I wear a mask, because I might be infected with COVID-19 and be asymptomatic, and the kinder thing to do is to try and keep my breath to myself as much as possible.
Now I get why people are a bit put off wearing masks. I understand why people reason that “I’m not vulnerable, I probably won’t catch it, and anyway, the masks don’t protect you…” I get that because we live in a culture that prizes our individuality over consideration for others. We rationalize our behaviour based on our personal good first. And often that’s all the planning we do. The results of this behaviour are evident in things like climate change, or the inability to address the opioid crises, poverty or homelessness with radical solutions. The vast majority of people look at their own circumstances and believe that they are not connected to these problems, or that somehow they are immune to them.
In our culture, it takes an epiphany to change one’s view. It seems that one has to get sick, or become homeless or addicted before suddenly things become problems. We often hear stories of people who suddenly find themselves in dire straits complaining about the levels of service at hospitals for example, while for years they never paid attention as health care budgets were slashed to pieces.
One of the biggest lessons I took away from last year’s trip to Japan was about this culture of consideration, and it’s interdependance between the individual and the group (and yes knowing full well there are exceptions to the rule.) One of the things I am taking away from this pandemic is the same. There is no way out of this through an assertion of the individual over the health of the group. That is not how public health works. We must learn that our collective health is bound up in individual choices that we make and that our individual health and overall wellbeing is directly dependant upon the health and wellbeing of the group, and especially the most vulnerable in the group.
That is the lesson this pandemic is teaching us. Whether we learn this or not will very much determine how this thing will play out and what happens next in our world.