Commentary  Stop Face Mask Shaming

The Stigma that Wearing a Face Mask = Being Sick Needs to STOP

Can face masks stop the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19)? 

Yes, according to the Guardian. Studies have shown that wearing a face mask is five-times as effective in protecting you from the coronavirus than if you were not wearing any barrier at all. 

And yet, there has been a long-held stigma in our community that considers wearing face masks as an admission of guilt. This needs to stop.

Face masks are effective in preventing you from catching the virus, it can also spare others from your germs. Masks work, and doctors know that. For those who are immunocompromised, with underlying health conditions or senior citizens, masks are a necessity. For people who do not meet any of the aforementioned criteria, masks are not required, but still helpful.

For this reason, it is not only ableist, but also irresponsible to shame people for wearing face masks. When you see someone with a face mask walking on the streets or riding the bus, they’re doing a public favour by curbing potential transmissions of the virus. It is not expected to thank them, but please, at least don’t stare at them.

When you see someone with a face mask walking on the streets or riding the bus, they’re doing a public favour by curbing potential transmissions of the virus. It is not expected to thank them, but please, at least don’t stare at them.

Nevertheless, it’s a bad idea if everyone starts panic-buying face masks at the same time, which is why many politicians and doctors like Dr. William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor in Infectious Diseases, have been reminding us that “if there’s a general recommendation that people wear face masks, we won’t have enough supply for healthcare workers.” 

There is also a concern held by some experts that medical N95 respirators are not designed for average citizens who did not undergo fitting training, which could translate into a false sense of security when people are not wearing them the right way. Therefore, surgical masks, as opposed to N95 respirators, are considered more appropriate for civilian users. Also, as TIME points out, more studies are desperately needed on this subject before any expert can give out conclusive advice.

But that doesn’t explain how we got from “masks are not medically necessary” to “shaming or even assaulting people for wearing masks.” Such incidents have happened in London, New York, Milan, and even in Vancouver. All victims are Asian.

“I felt very humiliated and misunderstood,” says Man, a New Yorker who is ethnically Chinese. Man elaborates in an interview with TIME that whenever he uses the MTA while wearing a mask, other passengers stare at him as if he did something wrong. 

One commonly-cited excuse of many perpetrators of those anti-Asian hate crimes is that face masks are an indication of someone being sick, and therefore signify that the individual is “diseased” and needs to be “removed.”  

Wearing a mask is a preventive measure. If it is indicative of anything, it shows that whoever wearing a mask is a responsible citizen fulfilling their civic duty in protecting themselves from contracting the virus.

First of all, every part of that narrative is factually incorrect. Wearing a mask is a preventive measure. If it is indicative of anything, it shows that whoever wearing a mask is a responsible citizen fulfilling their civic duty in protecting themselves from contracting the virus.  Second of all, tacitly equating “foreign-looking individuals” with “contagious disease” is one of the oldest tricks in the xenophobic playbook, similar to how Donald Trump accused Mexican immigrants being the ones bringing in diseases to the United States, or suggesting that the border wall with Mexico can somehow stop the coronavirus (Mexico has far fewer cases reported than the United States at the time of publication). Associating COVID-19 with Chinese ethnicity is a thinly-veiled attempt at justifying anti-Asian racism. 

However, the real force responsible for the spike in attacks is not only a small percentage of our society that are racist individuals, but the entrenched stereotype perpetuated by the mainstream media, whether intentionally or not. According to Vox, the media tend to use racialized images when reporting on public health crises. When covering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, media outlets almost exclusively use pictures of Asian-presenting individuals wearing masks, thus giving out a signal that “only Asians have the disease,” which is, in turn, a by-product of under-representation and misrepresentation of Asians in the developed world.  

“Chinese people eat bats,” is a perfect example showcasing why treating immigrant or international cultures as “exotic” is problematic and potentially hatred-generating. Had the developed world treated Chinese people as is, without infusing imaginative and inaccurate stereotypes, such a story would never gain traction. There is no excuse for the hate crime against Asian individuals whatsoever, but our community also needs to be better informed and must reexamine how it views Chinese culture and people. 

There is no excuse for the hate crime against Asian individuals whatsoever, but our community also needs to be better informed and must reexamine how it views Chinese culture and people.

For the record, it’s not medically recommended to wear a mask if you’re healthy and don’t frequently interact with people that might already be infected. However, if someone elects to go above and beyond in protecting themselves and those around them, they have every right to do so, especially if they’re doing it in a scientifically and statistically-proven method.

Also, be mindful that you’ll have to wear it correctly to give yourself any protection. Refer to the World Health Organization for more instructions on wearing face masks.

It’s similar to wearing a reflective vest when riding a bicycle at night, for sure extending an additional layer of safety to the cyclist, but is it mandatory by law? No. People shouldn’t blame a passer-by for wearing masks in the same way that no one would normally assault a cyclist for taking extra precaution.