The latest epidemic of corona virus has sent people scrambling for unprecedented face masks. “The world is facing a severe disruption in the market for personal protective equipment,” says Tedros Adhanum Gebreses, WHO director-general. Cautious last week. “Demand is 100 times higher than usual and prices go up to 20 times.” This, though Face masks are not, on their own, a proven preventative against infection from the new coronavirus (handwashing is more important, and medical experts seem to agree).
However, this purchase should not be seen as evidence of irrational epidemic panic. Think about wearing the mask in its historical and cultural context, and you’ll see that in China, for example, it is much more than just a way to protect itself from injury. Masks are also a sign of medical modernity, as well as an indication of mutual assurance that allows society to continue to operate during the epidemic.
Anti-epidemic masks as we know them today were invented in China more than a century ago, during the first effort by the Chinese state to contain the epidemic with biomedical means. When Pneumonic plague The northeastern provinces of the Chinese Empire (which was then known as Manchuria) were struck in the autumn of 1910, and the Chinese authorities separated from their ancient opposition to Western medicine: they appointed Wu Lin Tie (Also known as Wu Liyande), a brilliant young Chinese physician educated in Cambridge from British Malaya, to oversee efforts to stem the outbreak. The plague was about to meet the match.
Soon after his arrival at the field, Wu emphasized that this plague was not spread by mice, as it was supposed, but was carried by air. The statement was heresy, and it turned out to be true. Wu proved his point by adapting existing surgeons’ masks – made from gauze-covered cotton mantle – into easy-to-wear protective devices that Chinese doctors, nurses, and health personnel ordered to use. He also made sure to wear masks by patients and their direct contacts, and distributed it to the general public.
Wu’s Japanese and European colleagues on the ground were skeptical until the death of a prominent French doctor who would not cover up even while the patients were present. Gauze masks soon, widely adopted. Some will wearer Their first seal with the seal from the temple More than just medical devices, masks have become a talisman.
The plague that caused pneumonia caused the death of everyone with it, sometimes within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. By the time it abated in April 1911, about 60,000 people had died, but Wu’s masks are believed to have prevented a greater catastrophe.
The masks were not just an effective safeguard: it was also an excellent public relations tool for declaring China a modern scientific country. Wu knew that. He was careful to accurately depict his anti-plague operations and turn his mask into a slogan of Chinese antiquities before Western medicine.
The photos were an international sensation: between January and March 1911, Newspapers around the world featured many Wu mask footage It is very similar to the white paper version we know today. Cheap, easy to manufacture and wear, was effective for the most, and was a victory. When the Spanish flu appeared in 1918, facial masks were easily adopted.
In the West, masks were not used after World War II. But in China, masks remained a sign of medical modernity and continued to be used for public health crises. They were deployed during the Korean War after Mao Zedong claimed that the United States bombed the new communist country With biological weapons. Since the late twentieth century, in post-colonial British Mao Mao and Hong Kong, masks have been used against air pollution.
It was the SARS epidemic 2002-3 which led to Huge adoption of face masks As a personal antivirus protection in China and elsewhere in East Asia: over 90 percent of Hong Kong residents He reportedly wore them During the SARS epidemic. Once again, as in 1911 – but on the scale of the twenty-first century – portraits of crowds wearing an SARS mask became around the world.
In the West, the image of Asian people who have masks is sometimes used, intentionally or not, as evidence of the other. But in East Asia, wearing a mask is a gesture that conveys solidarity during an epidemic – at a time when society is vulnerable to division because of fear, between healthy and sick people.
Different studies SARS epidemic Show that wearing a mask creates intimacy and confidence in the face of danger. What Sociologist Peter Bahr It is noteworthy that SARS also applies to this day: “mask culture” fosters a sense of shared and mutual obligation and civil duty. It brings together people who face a common threat and helps mitigate one of the secondary risks of the epidemic: abnormalityOr the breakdown of social norms. Related humor face mask, Fixture from SARS, Returned to social media in China today. Wearing a mask is a social ritual.
Understanding epidemics is not just biological events but also as social processes it is essential to successfully contain them. Community members wear masks not only to stave off disease. They also wear masks to show their desire to stick and work together under the curse of infection.
Christos Linteres is a medical anthropologist at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.