The social meanings of face masks
Bangkok—Two incidents—the Taal Volcano eruption and the ongoing novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak—have dramatically increased the demand for face masks in the Philippines, and one can see a lot of people wearing them in malls, LRT stations, and especially airports. I was in Naia on the weekend and I found it surreal to see half the people with their masks on. A similar scene greeted me in Bangkok, where many locals had been wearing masks anyway because of the pollution.
The manifest function of face masks, of course, is to protect people from volcanic ash, wildfire smoke, smog, infectious droplets, and other noxious particles. But their usage goes beyond their medical indications. In fact, there is some debate as to the extent to which they can actually prevent healthy people from contracting environmental viruses in normal circumstances, with some experts arguing that the value of the masks is more to prevent already-infected people from spreading infections.
This is where cultural values, local perceptions of risk, personal preferences, and even economic interests are engaged.
In the aftermath of the Taal Volcano eruption, the Department of Health said that “we don’t necessarily have to use the N95 masks” outside the danger zone, but it did not stop people all over the country from buying and even hoarding them, with supplies reported to have run out in cities as far from the volcano as Iligan and Davao. There were also reports of unscrupulous sellers hiking the price of N95 masks from P35 to P200.
During the height of the eruption, face masks became a valuable commodity—the currency of both greed and goodwill. Notably, one of the most inspiring images throughout the crisis was a photo of a man handing out free masks in Cavite.
While the geography of risk is circumscribed in a volcanic eruption, the invisible nature of viruses means that in the coronavirus epidemic, people can feel vulnerable anywhere, leading to masks running out of stock all over the world, from Taipei to Toronto. Lamentably but not surprisingly, encounters with places or people deemed Chinese—or even just Asian—are prompting more-than-usual mask use, despite medical advisories to the contrary.
In these instances, masks serve as a physical and symbolic barrier between the body-self and the outside world, giving people a sense of autonomy and security against threats imagined and real.
—————The feeling of being “at risk” is a feature of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck called “risk society”: a world people consider to be full of danger, whether from electromagnetic waves or toxins and microbes. Another sociologist, Anthony Giddens, suggested that the modern preoccupation with safety is itself contributory to this sense of risk.
Epidemics heighten these preexisting fears, and so do the prejudices—racial, social, economic—that accompany them. In a sense, this is what separates them from volcanic eruptions and other natural disasters: The latter do not normally implicate humans, while the former engenders, in the words of social psychologist Philip Strong, an “epidemic of explanation”—which includes notions of contagion, blame, and the consequent stigmatization and exclusion.
At least in the case of epidemics, masks participate in the act of “othering” by marking some people as necessitating protection from.But, as in some Asian countries, they can also evolve as part of what Michel Foucault terms “technologies of the self.” In Japanese cities, for instance, it is not uncommon to see people wearing masks on subways. Beyond cultural notions of risk, the decision to wear face masks can be informed by social and personal reasons. As Tomoyuki, a university student in Tokyo, once told me: “When I wear a face mask, no one bothers me.”
Meanwhile, face masks are also figuring in fashion shows and being used as fashion statements. There are Pokémon masks, and memes that speculate on what a Louis Vuitton rendition would look like.
All of these examples make clear that face masks, like all other human artifacts, reveal facets of our culture as much as they conceal our faces.
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