How Living in Korea During Coronavirus Convinced Me to Wear a Face Mask

A path lined with cherry trees in Seoul
Photo by Jeff Backhaus

Years ago, I remember searching the internet for “why do people in Asia wear masks?” Because after pondering the question for so long I couldn’t grasp any clear answer. Was it the pollution? It had to be the pollution. Or maybe they wore it when they were sick — but how could everybody be sick constantly? Maybe it was just a fashion accessory incorporated into one’s outfit. Because like most others in my country, Australia, and perhaps most other Westerners, the concept of wearing a face mask seemed so alien.

Fast forward to now: I never leave my house here in Seoul without wearing a mask, and don’t think I ever will for the foreseeable future. A face mask makes me feel protected, safe, and normal. It’s like second nature to me now. How did I get to this point? I’ve seen firsthand the benefits of mask wearing during the coronavirus pandemic in Korea.

Benefits of Masks

So why were East Asian countries so quick to adopt the widespread use of face masks during the coronavirus outbreak? The use of masks has a long history, but the affinity for them can be explained by understanding their multitude of benefits, all of which I’ve slowly come to realize.

Benefit number one: protection against poor air quality. In Korea, pollution from fine dust particles has been a serious issue for a while now, in addition to the yellow dust which appears seasonally. Benefit number two: protection against the weather. Coming from Sydney, I never knew air could be so cold that it makes your skin feel icy and your nose run. Masks are a great defense against this. Benefit number three: prevention from spreading sickness. This feature of face masks is relevant now more than ever. Part of the reason why Koreans turn to masks even when sick with the common cold is that generally, those feeling under the weather are still expected to attend school or work. And finally, benefit number four: coverage for an unpresentable look. Sometimes people, women especially, don’t feel comfortable leaving the house without makeup. And occasionally one just wants to hide their hangover face, or their I-got-three-hours-of-sleep face. This is where the mask comes in handy. So considering all of these benefits, it’s easy to see why East Asians are so accustomed to it.

Social Pressure: To Wear or Not to Wear?

I remember wandering around Sydney’s Chinatown in early February — the dawn of the coronavirus outbreak. No one was wearing a mask, let alone practicing social distancing. My friend and I purchased basic surgical masks at a Chinese pharmacy and wore them about the city. The looks, comments, and laughs we noticed from strangers made us feel uncomfortable enough to take them off.

But after arriving in Korea not too much later, it was clear that the situation was flipped. The stares and judgement that Koreans gave me for not wearing a mask made me feel like I wasn’t doing my part to combat transmission of the virus. So I put one on immediately.

Even today, you can see foreigners walking around the streets of Seoul and riding public transport barefaced, apparently ignorant to Korea’s pro-mask social etiquette that has become an obligation. Many stores, cafes, and clubs won’t permit you entry without one.

So why the hostility toward face masks by Westerners? Wearing them was just not something we ever did. For the most part, the air quality is tolerable and quite good in Australia. When sick, people tend to just stay home and avoid others. And face masks in Western fashion have only appeared very recently. On top of this, trusted sources like WHO and Forbes have come out against the use of face masks saying “they do nothing.” According to Forbes, not only do you “not need face masks to prevent coronavirus” but they “might increase your infection risk.” The greatest irony in this is that now the U.S. has surpassed China in the number of infections. It seems that telling people they don’t need masks has backfired. Similarly, “experts” from France24 claim “wearing masks and gloves as a precaution against coronavirus is ineffective, unnecessary for the vast majority of people, and may even spread infections faster.” All of which is blatantly untrue.

Masks Are One Piece of the Prevention Puzzle

Here’s the thing. Face masks alone don’t completely prevent the spread of the virus, but then again nor does hand washing, sanitizer, coughing into your elbow, or social distancing. But everybody consistently doing all of those things, including wearing masks, is the best defense we have.

Plus it’s really reassuring to see everyone the street wearing masks, united against this invisible threat, looking out for everyone’s safety.

Of course, times are tough and many in America and other countries can’t even buy a mask if they want one. The situation is so bad that some doctors in hospitals are unable to perform life-saving operations because of the shortage. Prices have soared for single masks and people have started crafting them out of all sorts of materials. I get it, people’s hands are tied. But what we can do is change the stigma of mask wearing from it being an indication that someone is infected to an acceptable form of prevention. Case in point — early February saw two Asian women attacked for wearing face masks, one in a New York subway station and another in Midtown, Manhattan. While the perpetrators took the masks to be proof that the women were infected, the attacks demonstrated the cost of enduring such racist ignorance during this difficult and uncertain time.

A lot of the reason why Korea has been so successful at containing the coronavirus is down to their use of masks. Here, we have managed to keep transmissions to a minimum, while other countries continue to see their numbers of infections skyrocket. A special system based on one’s birth date has been instituted to ensure an even supply of masks at reasonable costs. Smartphone map applications indicate which pharmacies have the item in stock. This way, there’s no panic buying and masks are readily available to the public. While it may be too little, too late to expect this kind of order to be implemented in Western countries, what we can do is get rid of what’s left of our disdain towards face masks, and see them for what they are — just one of the multiple preventive measures we can take together against the spread of the virus.