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VCRs, iPhones and face masks


June 22, 2020

Growing up, I spent the early and mid-90s in Beijing. The Beijing of that time was a lot grimier, a lot less shiny and just very different overall from the metropolis I found when I visited again almost two decades later.

One of the many memories that I still have from those days is that of the ubiquitous ‘citizen monitors,’ chosen from local neighborhoods and communities, who were identifiable by the red armbands with text on them. Ensuring compliance with every law in a city as populous as Beijing is not a job for the police force alone. Dealing with criminals has to be prioritized above fining litterers and jaywalkers.

This job fell to citizen monitors, who did not have the authority to arrest anyone, but were able to fine people for misdemeanors. Nowadays, the citizen monitors have likely been replaced by China’s mass surveillance system that feeds into its Social Credit System that went operational in 2014. Little surprise then that as medical professionals gradually began recognizing the efficacy of face masks in stemming the spread of the disease, human and automated surveillance was brought into the service of ensuring compliance with new guidelines.

To be fair though, people in most far East countries (China, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, etc) trusted the advice from their experts and did not need to be told twice and quickly and voluntarily adopted the recommended guidelines. Moreover, wearing masks was an ordinary sight in these countries even pre-Covid.

In her June 6 article (‘Is the Secret to Japan’s Virus Success Right in Front of Its Face?’), Motoko Rich of the New York Times described her experience of moving to Tokyo. She recounts an experience from 10 years ago, how she had picked up a cough on the flight there. Not used to wearing masks, a family friend politely nudged her and introduced her to the cultural expectation of wearing one, particularly when showing signs of illness.

Japan presents an important case study for the effectiveness of wearing masks in public to control Covid. Japan dragged its feet on lockdowns and shutdowns, making many social distancing measures voluntary. Yet, despite a slow response and voluntary measures and an old population, Japan saw fewer deaths per million than many countries that took drastic measures to contain the pandemic, likely attributable to the one thing it did do right - the widespread use of face masks.

Meanwhile, at the culturally opposite pole of the globe, in the United States and its West European allies, people were getting largely the same news coverage and advice. But over there people are still stuck in a debate about whether mandating the wearing of masks infringes on freedoms. We have seen videos circulating showing customers getting abusive or violent when told by retailers to mask up.

Then there is us: an over-populated, under-resourced, under-educated, and under-informed developing nation, but with the same will to buck authority as the free world, even if it costs us and our families our lives. Now that even our prime minister seems to have come around to the need of wearing face masks, the question is, how can we ensure people take this guideline seriously?

Our police forces are too small and not up to the job of running after people for misdemeanors and enforcing wearing of masks and distancing measures. A few days ago, an argument between a policeman and a man not wearing a face mask escalated to a point where the policeman ended up tasing him.

In our country’s context, a job like this is tailor made for local government, where community representatives with credible ties to the communities they represent can identify and rope in influential locals to get the word out. Instead we got the ‘Tiger Force’, a group that is bound to polarize and stir up controversy and opposition for its political association.

Back in March, awareness of the pandemic had just begun to take hold in Pakistan. A colleague at my workplace, let me call him Asim*, had adopted wearing a face mask and following precautionary measures yet. One day Asim was sitting in a filled room where he was the only one wearing his mask. Another colleague, let me call him Baber, entered the room, went around and shook hands with everyone but him. Feeling peer-pressure, even Asim reluctantly extended his hand for a shake. But at that point Baber said: “No, Asim. You are wearing a mask which means you are taking precautions, so I will not shake your hand.”

Baber respected Asim’s decision, and you may think this was an outlier response because many others may insist on shaking hands. However, consider this: On June 5, Craig Timberg of the Washington Post wrote an article (‘How do masks change human behavior?’) describing the findings of Massimo Marchiori, an Italian computer scientist, who specializes in the use of mobility data. When the pandemic struck, he directed his efforts at related problems he had expertise in.

The most interesting of his several findings is the reaction face masks elicit from passersby. He collected empirical data of distances by which pedestrians passed by each other. Even during the pandemic, people would draw closer to oncoming pedestrians when they were not wearing a mask. However, when an oncoming pedestrian was wearing a mask, they would pass her at a greater distance.

This goes to show that face masks are effective on multiple levels, not just to filter out contaminants from the inhaled air and contain their spread from exhaled air. Visible face masks, even makeshift ones, signal others to keep a bigger-than-usual distance. In the absence of the state’s capacity to enforce necessary measures by traditional law enforcement or anything else (yes, I am discounting the ‘Tiger Force’), that leaves us only with the kind of soft measures like the implicit signaling conveyed by a worn face mask.

Unlike other nations, we are not familiar with the concept of personal space. Stand in a queue some place, and the person standing behind you will be breathing down your neck, literally. Introducing people to the idea of personal space will be a slow process.

In time, when we reach a critical mass of mask wearers, perhaps can we count on the kind of social pressure we see in Japan, that makes it socially unacceptable to not wear one. Social pressure to keep up with the Chaudhrys/any other elite has made us buy VCRs in the 1980s, satellite TV receivers in the 1990s, cars we could not afford in the 2000s and expensive iPhones in the 2010s.

Maybe this time around we can channel it to make people want to wear a mask and not look ill-mannered, uncouth, and inconsiderate. Maybe this time around we can leverage it to achieve something useful for a change.

Email: [email protected]

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.