Wearing masks on a COVID-19 stricken planet has proved to be very successful in the East – Rajika Jayatilake explains

COVID-19-like death is seen as a great leveller; but ironically, it appears to be hitting developed countries harder than developing nations. Many Asian nations in particular have the pandemic under control, which could partly be due to recent experiences with epidemics. Asia was hit with bird flu in the 1990s, SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009.

Further, the touristic appeal of wealthy destinations was a major disadvantage for developed countries at the outset. It caught them unawares as COVID-19 spread from China to East Asia, and subsequently through tourists to Europe and North America.

On the other hand, Asian and African countries had “time to prepare and do some form of physical distancing,” says public health expert at the University of Melbourne Prof. Tony Blakely.

However, there are far more tangible reasons why the West lost and the East won, in terms of controlling the numbers of sick and dead with COVID-19.

The widespread concern among individuals for community welfare in Asia contrasts with the more self-centered, selfish and individualistic whims of Western societies  where personal liberties are prioritised over collective responsibility and public health.

Wearing a mask is considered one of the simplest methods to control COVID-19; yet, it’s met with widespread resistance in the West. Western political culture typically stigmatises masks, associating them with illness and disability, and a lack of masculinity. Apparently, wearing a mask denotes losers.

Medical anthropologist at the University of St Andrews in Scotland Dr. Christos Lynteris avers: “I’ve heard people say that they were carrying a mask on an airplane but were too ashamed to wear it.”

In the US especially, there is the perennial struggle between government authority and individual freedoms. Ashley Smith from North Carolina burned a mask in a frying pan, claiming that the mandatory use of masks hinders “our freedoms.” Even after losing members of his family to COVID-19, Charles Gbekia of Arizona (where the rate of infections was recently surging) says he will not wear a mask.

Senior Director at the American Psychological Association Dr. Vaile Wright explains: “When people sense that another person is trying to control their decision, some people are going to act out against that control whereas others are going to go along with it.”

Across the US, public health officials who advocate wearing face masks have received death threats. Leading infectious diseases specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci is employing private security to protect him and his family after receiving death threats, for being consistently and publicly vocal about wearing masks to stop the spread of the virus.

With the US presidential election coming up in November, wearing masks has also turned into a symbol of political conflict – with scientific evidence often viewed through a partisan lens. The Pew Research Center finds that Democrats mostly support wearing masks while Republicans are generally reluctant to do so and denouncing them as “muzzles.”

Professor of Public Health at Morgan State University in Baltimore Dr. Timothy Akers says that “we’re seeing politics and science literally crashing.”

Unlike in the East, where leaders and the public both understand the importance of wearing masks to ward off sickness, the messaging in the US has been inconsistent. In early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US Surgeon General announced that people shouldn’t wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

On 30 March, Executive Director of Health Emergencies at the WHO Dr. Mike Ryan contended that “there is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.”

A few days later on 3 April, the CDC reversed its message and claimed that face covering could help reduce transmission of the disease.

Dr. David Abrams – a clinical psychologist at New York University’s School of Global Public Health – notes: “The ambivalence of mixed messages makes it far easier for people to do whatever they want and make up their own minds.”

Meanwhile, public health experts in the US strongly believe that the violent differences between pro and anti-mask citizens in communities needs to be ironed out first before authorities can get a grip on the uncontrollable surge in coronavirus cases.

Wright suggests that people should stop rebelling against medical guidelines and consider them as a “selfless act to help others.”

She says: “Our role as citizens is to be responsible. Our freedom comes with responsibility and this is one of those responsibilities to protect the public.”

Dr. Robert R. Redfield is the Director of the CDC. He opines: “We are not defenceless against COVID-19. Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsi-bility to protect themselves, their families and their communities.”