Minju Jung By: Minju Jung
Doctoral Researcher in Politics and International Relations
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04 Apr 2020 : Face Mask Culture in Pandemic

My family and friends in South Korea ask me several questions about the UK’s response to COVID-19 with genuine curiosity. Two of the frequently asked questions are: ‘Why are people buying a lot of groceries, especially toilet rolls?’ and ‘Why don’t people wear masks outside?’. I don't have the right answers and spent some thought on these two phenomena: excessive grocery buying and, not wearing a face mask in the UK.

For the first question, people may be concerned about limited supply and grocery shortage. But, I reckon it may be far from panic-buying. Perhaps, Britons may prepare for self-isolation by stockpiling items that they would need during the isolation. Surprisingly, the stockpiling revealed Britons’ affection for toilet paper. People may regard toilet paper as an essential item to maintain human dignity. I am not sure how other people might think of the phenomenon of toilet paper buying.

The second question is very interesting for me because people’s attitude towards face masks here in the UK is different from Korea.

A face mask is an essential item for Koreans in coping with this pandemic, along with a sanitiser gel. Following the government’s strong recommendation for wearing KF94 masks, wearing a mask outside became a social norm in Korea. It is broadly believed that wearing a mask is important not only in protecting oneself against the coronavirus, but also to protect others from contact with it. This gained importance, considering, the virus might be transmitted from people who are asymptomatic (those who do not display any symptoms after being infected with the virus).

However, people in the UK do not wear masks to protect themselves. Britons seem not to be used to using masks, and also, they believe that only patients (or those infected with the virus) should wear masks. The UK government recommends the masks only for infected people or healthcare workers taking care of infected patients.

Given the current trend of not wearing masks, it was really interesting to see media coverage over the last few days on the use and effectiveness of face masks against the spread of the virus. Major broadcasting stations, who initially had negative views on wearing masks, began to air interviews with medical experts who support the idea of wearing masks. Even the US government is considering to recommend the wearing of cloth masks. In the next few days, they are planning to release new guidelines for using face masks. (Many Koreans were very surprised by this because the Korean government has informed them that a cloth mask is not effective in protecting them from the virus).

I guess that this difference in the wearing of masks in Korea and the UK may have been caused by cultural differences, which shapes people’s behaviour. Face masks are very common in Korea, even in normal times. People wear masks to prevent droplets from spreading to other people when they have a cold. They also wear masks to protect their respiratory organs from fine dust and yellow dust that blows in from China and the deserts of Mongolia. Besides these medical reasons, people, particularly young people, wear masks for style (fashion). This was introduced from Japan. Face mask is a popular fashion item in Japan, and people wear a mask regardless of space, time or weather (this trend is called 伊達マスク).

It seems very interesting how cultural differences influence countries’ responses to the pandemic. Nevertheless, culture alone may not explain the UK’s less interest in wearing face masks. The UK government’s passive approach to face mask policy may be due to its limited supply capacity. Perhaps, the UK government does not have the capacity to supply enough masks to meet the demand of the broader populace; which could eventually lead to the shortage of masks for medical and health care workers.

The government explains that the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not recommend the wearing of masks. The Director-General of the WHO emphasized the escalation in testing for the virus, saying “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, and test”. But, Boris Johnson, in a news conference on the same day, only urged people to work from home and to stay home when having symptoms. Increasing the number of tests was not the government’s priority. So, following WHO’s policy, only for face masks, is not a good excuse. 

Personally, as a non-medical expert, I think that wearing a mask would help us to protect ourselves and others from the virus (perhaps, because of my cultural background). If we take into account that the testing rate in the UK is low and it’s more focussed on patients and medical workers, the importance of the wearing of masks becomes even clearer. I think that the UK government should reconsider the current facemask policy. We don’t know whether the people we pass by on the street or in a shop are infected with the virus (but not displaying the symptoms); or if we are infected with the virus or just having a cold.

So, I think that wearing a mask would be a good idea, IF I CAN FIND ONE!

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