The onset of the exponential spread of the Covid-19 pandemic cascaded upon the entire world as an unfolding of a dystopian novel. The inequalities in society are festering like an unsutured wound out in the open. There is no pretending anymore. Right from the plight in India to every level in the international order, it is evident we all are united in our miseries. Yet, the pandemic revealed so starkly the deep-lying problems of the current state of the world, as poignantly observed by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, Antonio Gutteres in a tweet:
#COVID19 has exposed the lie that free markets can deliver healthcare for all, the fiction that unpaid care work isn’t work, the delusion that we live in a post-racist world. We are all floating on the same sea, but some are in superyachts & others clinging to drifting debris.
In undeniably one of the defining moments of this era, there is a sight that is common to all of us: the suddenly ubiquitous surgical masks. In this paper, I intend to unravel the politics and motive aesthetics behind the masks, in the times of Covid-19. I will briefly trace the cultural relevance and the origins of wearing surgical masks in public. I also will be touching upon the element of perceivable cultural differences in the East and the West with respect to the mask, and how it has impacted, and in return, been impacted by the pandemic. Then, I also will explore a new aspect of unfolding events in international politics that seems to revolve around – masks. The juxtaposition of China’s “mask diplomacy” as it is being called in the circuit, with the outright deniers of wearing mask and science behind it right from the likes of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, etc. and their followers. Therefore, this unexpected politicization behind this atypical artifact requires introspection.
Origins and Evolution of Surgical Masks Culture
Masks have been in use throughout human history in different cultures symbolizing societal status, fashion statement, protection, camouflage, disguise, theatre, dramatics, and gender segregation. They have worked as a medium to cloak identity and also establish solidarity.
The medical masks, became prominent in East and South-East Asian culture parallel to the pneumonia outbreak in Manchuria in 1910, and then came the 1918 Influenza epidemic that engulfed the entire world, not very different from now. The medical personnel and workers used surgical masks to protect themselves and the general public. Not much later, given the emergency, the general public started incorporating masks as a definitive feature of public presence. This became the symbol of “hygienic modernity” with its traditional roots in ancient Japanese and Chinese philosophy.
As many social scientists studying the East Asian culture and politics have pointed out, the civic sense in the region emanates from the “collective reasoning in Asian societies” that spills onto the health and public infrastructure and thereby, conduct of the people. What started as a coping and protective mechanism from the Influenza epidemic, became the recognizable feature of public life. It is an eclectic mixture of cultural subjectivity and modernization into a melting pot.
But this was not the only epidemic they faced, come the age of Second World War, Japan’s rampant modernization in all directions, its geographical propensity to natural disasters especially earthquakes, pollution, all added to the need of wearing masks in the public. This practice also spilled to the similarly placed neighbors in the socio-economic and geographic sphere, i.e., China and Korea.
Fast forward to the late twentieth century and the age of globalization. The “Asian Tigers” were the very first ones in the region to harness the potential of the changing nature of the world economy. And then entered the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus in the system, followed by the 2006 Bird Flu outbreak only four years later. The gush of one viral epidemic after another solidified the public consciousness in favor of wearing the mask.
From then on, the surgical masks have evolved in these cultures with the times. They are not just used to protect oneself from the pollutants and airborne germs, but a new dimension of symbolism where the post-modernist justification meets capitalism.
The face mask culture has become a commodity being harnessed by the fast-fashion brands and high fashion couture alike. The wearing of masks in public spaces such as metro and other modes of public transport, streets and alleys, markets, etc. is a signifier of voluntary reclusiveness, relative anonymity, and a sense of personal space. The masks can be seen adorned by teens and college students as a fashion statement, K-Pop and J-Pop celebrities stepping out in them more often than not to avoid public attention, or even as an important strategic protest gear in Hong Kong.
The East v/s West Conundrum Again?
The onset of the contagion has strengthened racist bias towards the East, yet again, in the Western hemisphere. This is being reflected in the rampant cases of racist bias, gestures, and assaults towards the East-Asians with all over the world. The attention has been grabbed by the masks too. When the President of the United States claims in the press conference, attributing the virus Chinese nationality by calling it “The China Virus” and refusing to wear a mask, it sends a message.
The major part of our public life is determined by communication and culture is being altered by the introduction of the mask into the public life. For the previous non-mask wearing societies, the change comes as a culture shock to many. Whereas in the Eastern part of the world wearing a mask means politeness and solidarity, the other side finds it rude. This is already playing into the stigmatized politics of hiding one’s face in the European setting, as evident from the ongoing controversial hijab debates in France and adjoining nations.
Chinese diaspora has reported harassments in public for the simple act of wearing masks, the legitimacy to discriminate is being derived from the acts of their leaders. The meaning of wearing masks must take a new meaning now when the “normal” has been upended by the virus.
For the Western culture, wearing a mask can mean anything from the potential carrier of sickness to unhygienic, diseased self. According to the common perception, they rob the person with the agency of responding to facial cues and interaction. Perhaps the reason why it is being so dreadful in the aforementioned setting. With the pandemic working as the great equalizer, it remains to be seen how does the intervention of the surgical mask sit with the public unfamiliar with it.
Masks as the Conduit of Conducting Politics
Should the Coronavirus crisis have an emblem, it definitely will be the face mask. There has been an unusual unfolding in the international political scenario, ironically, circumambulating around the seemingly harmful masks. Some leaders of the world refused to wear it displaying as their act of “defiance” and “strong immune system”. The list includes Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jair Bolsonaro, Mike Pence, amongst a few others. This comes when scientists, health workers, medical personnel, health organizations all around the world are urging the public to wear masks at all times and ensure social distancing. The situation has divided the public and has led to multiple clashes and escalating tension as it is evident from following the news headlines and social media every day.
Only recently Trump made a public appearance in a mask that garnered the media attention when it shouldn’t have. Jair Bolsonaro was tested Covid-19 positive. Boris Johnson started wearing only after he was put on the trail of recovery from the virus. This sums up the philosophy of the politics these leaders propagate. The misplaced muscularization of politics by putting undue emphasis on the “show of strength” and perfunctory handling of the pandemic situation makes the mockery of seriousness that is required from these world leaders. The display of strength is not in refusing or showing an aversion to wearing a mask but leading by setting the example and wearing one in public.
On the other hand, the Chinese side is engaging actively in what is being called “mask diplomacy”. It is part of the strategy of using soft power through cultural, social, economic alliance, and gesture of goodwill to establish itself as the global health leader. The urgency to placate the anxiety of the West, China is sending health equipment including masks, PPE, machines, medical personnel far across the borders to its European allies. China being the initial focal point of the breakout, reacted quickly to ameliorate the international negative image that it had garnered. The renewed talks on Belt and Road Initiative rebranded as the ‘Health Road Initiative’ is another diplomatic China was quick to come up with. The altruistic intention of China has been met with both skepticism and faith. Therefore, it remains to be seen how it is further going to pan out.
Thus, the aforementioned arguments present an interesting trajectory in international politics that is developing around masks, which is just a metaphor for the bigger political developments that need to be paid attention to.