Pink silk mask, handmade:
I wear your fear on my face
To say, “I love you.”
My mask is your mask
By Suzi Wong, April 2, 2020
Just so you know, I will be wearing a mask the next time you see me at the supermarket. That is not only to protect myself (though as a septuagenarian with asthma, I would be an idiot to go toe-to-toe against COVID-19 without armor), but also to protect others, like the stockers frantically filling shelves and the cashier bagging my groceries. And, even to protect you should we both be in the cereal aisle at the same time.
In Prague, where residents are required to wear masks, the new mantra goes My mask protects you; your mask protects me. To put it kindly and clearly: we are all in this together. There’s nothing like contagion to see that disease is indifferent to distinctions of race, religion, or party line. And nothing like a pandemic caused by a novel virus to compel novel ways of interacting with our neighbors. Adaptation being the hallmark of the species, once pushed to the wall by evidence, we all learned the concept of “social distancing” and quickly changed our behavior (albeit not without some initial “social stance shaming” from those in denial). We also learned to wash our hands to the tune of “Happy Birthday” and started wearing gloves to open our mail and Amazon deliveries.
Suzi Wong. Photo by Jed Rasula.
So, why the resistance to wearing masks? I didn’t wear them, either, until I read an eye-opening and disturbing article in the Washington Post: Simple DIY masks could help flatten the curve. We should all wear them in public. Got a T-shirt? You can make a mask at home.
The author, Jeremy Howard, a distinguished research scientist at the University of San Francisco, argues “There are good reasons to believe DIY masks would help a lot. Look at Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have covid-19 largely under control. They are all near the original epicenter of the pandemic in mainland China…..In all of these countries, all of which were hit hard by the SARS respiratory virus outbreak in 2002 and 2003, everyone is wearing masks in public. George Gao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stated, “Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
Howard concludes, “It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic. Masks effective at “flattening the curve” can be made at home with nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of scissors. We should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public.”
Heartened by Howard’s rallying call, I made a few DIY face masks that morning, using materials lying around the house, in part, to test my ingenuity and in part, to relieve my growing sense of anxiety and vulnerability as the numbers of COVID-19 cases mounted each day in the placid college town of Athens, GA which I have called home for nearly 18 years. Making the masks was diverting and revived a sense of agency against the vast unknowns of the pandemic. My products, made from a cut-up bra, an elastic headband, and a shopping bag and shoe laces, were serviceable (even stylish, methinks!) and no healthcare givers were deprived of official, medical-grade N-95 masks. However, when I wore my handmade, bricolage masks out to walk our dog, I felt distinctly weird. I imagined that passers-by were stricken at the sight of my surreal appearance, and that drivers in passing cars were rubber-necking on the near-empty streets.
Suzi Wong. Photo by Jed Rasula.
In examining these feelings about wearing a mask, I recognize my own cultural bias against the conformity/uniformity implied by the mask. Americans idealize individualism; we feel entitled to selfish behavior, and some are already moaning that their precious liberty has been threatened because their governor or mayor told them they can no longer endanger the community by indulging in a mochaccino at Starbucks or by playing beach volleyball with their buddies.
Given our American brand of individualism, we don’t understand the primacy of community and reciprocity behind Asian citizens’ compliance to strict rules about public behavior. “In many Asian countries, where everyone is encouraged to wear masks, the approach is about crowd psychology and protection. If everyone wears a mask, individuals protect one another, reducing overall community transmission. And places like Hong Kong and Taiwan that jumped to action early with social distancing and universal mask wearing have gotten their cases under much greater control.” (C.D.C. Weighs Advising Everyone to Wear A Mask, New York Times). When it comes to public health, mutual care is the operative ethic; as in other realms of life in Asian societies, consensus is valued.
Even for me, an Asian American who embraces the diversity of multicultural America, I suspect a subconscious element of racism or xenophobia lurks within the resistance to masks. After all, the recent photos of masked commuters and masked shoppers depict Asians, foreigners, embodiments of the misnamed “Chinese” virus. Even if their wearing of masks is intelligent and healthy, we don’t want to look like THAT! In other words, we don’t want to look like THEM, as if we’re dealing with a virus that actually discerns the difference between East and West. Think again: COVID-19 has crossed enough borders to show it doesn’t care about nationality or any perceived separations between us and them.
Unfortunately, this virus is global, but fortunately, it can unite us in a common mission. Some countries in Europe are beginning to follow the use of masks in Asia. The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bosnia-Herzegovina have mandated masks in public. In fact, they ostracize folks who show up bare-faced! Austria has required masks in supermarkets, a move that K.K. Cheng, a public health expert and professor at the University of Birmingham, U.K., supports because “trips to the supermarket are the main exposure to the virus.”
And, last but not least, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles (my true hometown) has urged all 4 million Angelenos to “wear homemade, non-medical face coverings, or even bandannas, as people in other COVID-19-struck countries have done.” In taking this radical step in battling the spread of coronavirus, Garcetti acknowledged the earlier arguments against wearing masks and reiterated, “To be clear, you should still stay at home. This isn’t an excuse to suddenly all go out,” and he added that people should leave the medical-grade masks for first responders and health care givers. He spoke at the podium from behind his own personal mask, a simple but urbane, hip black cloth. By the way, Garcetti’s news conference took place on April 1st, but y’all, he’s not fooling around. Be kind, be smart, make and wear your masks to take care of yourself, yours, and everyone else you encounter. Recycle your winter neck scarf, repurpose your old tee-shirt, and realize you are making a difference.
Footnote: Today, April 2, in light of emerging discussions to consider masks as a partner in mitigating the spread of this dire disease, DIYers have exciting new tools. Instructive websites and YouTube demos have mushroomed with colorful, practical, and inspiring designs for making masks. And once we have our vital new accessories, I guess we should heed advice from airlines (remember that long-ago thing called “travel”?): Adults, put on your masks before masking your kids.
Brownie Wong, Suzi Wong, Warren Wong and Donna Wong. Marietta, GA. Dec. 2019. Photo by Ken Sprague.
Suzi Wong writes from Athens, GA where she lives with her husband Jed Rasula and their greyhound Brownie Wong.