Sungmin Cho: Destigmatize mask-wearing

Monday, March 23, 2020 - 6:49pm

Let’s go back to Jan. 31, when there were zero COVID-19 cases in the United States, zero in Michigan and a similar situation in South Korea, where I and the majority of my friends are from. What I remember from those good old days, however, is that even at that moment, it was not as easy to get face masks as before. In addition to the concerns about where to buy them, we had an extra concern: whether we should wear them at all. The consensus from everyone I talked to was “I really need to wear a face mask, but at the same time, I’m concerned with nunchi,” or the Korean expression for gauging the moods of others. In this case, how folks here feel seeing people wearing face masks.

This collective concern is based on the cultural difference regarding face masks. In many East Asian cultures, face masks are not something you would wear only when you are ill. Long before the outbreak of COVID-19, it has been a collective norm in those cultures to wear face masks as a preventative health measure, dating to the SARS outbreak and as far back as the 1950s. Not only to prevent the common cold or flu, face masks are worn to protect the respiratory system from yellow dust or smog, to stay warm or for beauty purposes. For those who regularly wear make-up, it’s a tool to cover their bare face. For those who don’t, it’s an option to cover pimples, skin trouble or a dissatisfactory lower half of face. For these reasons, it’s not hard to find people wearing face masks in streets or subways of major East Asian cities. During winter, flu seasons or whenever yellow dust and smog get serious, people wearing face masks outnumber people who are not. With this in mind, it was a surprise to find out when I first came to the U.S. that virtually no one wears face masks.

Without such cultural contexts, it is understandable that there is a stigma that face masks belong in hospitals. This explained why healthy people walking on the street in face masks often get that subtle glance. Until January, it was just a subtle glance. A week after, we realized we were not overly concerned: That subtle glance turned into violence. A stranger in New York beating an Asian woman wearing a face mask was not only a racist incident, but a violent contribution to the stigma associated with face masks. During the panic, a Korean man was stabbed in Montreal, and the fear became real for many. For me, face masks visualize racist hysteria. On March 14, I was asked by a Lyft driver to explain why I was wearing a face mask. Those who misunderstand the wearing of face masks mostly don’t know that they are also meant for healthy people to protect themselves from other individuals. Simply not knowing the differing perceptions of face masks around the world is not an act of ignorance per se, but acting racist about the safety precaution is.

There remains controversy over whether face masks are the most effective measures to block COVID-19, which spreads mainly through respiratory droplets. However, since the effect of face masks as COVID-19 prevention still seems contested in the U.S., I would refrain from making the statement that everyone should wear them. Though I personally believe everyone should. Nevertheless, at least one clear thing is that we must destigmatize those who decide to wear face masks for their own safety or with the safety and wellness of others in mind.

I would like to conclude by sharing the other side of the story: the bright side. I thank the Kroger staff who showed me a wholehearted smile, the Walgreens cashier with a great sense of humor and another Uber driver who wished me to stay safe. I have observed tragic events around the world allowing racism to be condoned and justified under the name of a potential national security threat, but these people are the ones who upheld my trust in humanity.

The LSA Student Government released a statement that stated: “International student communities, as well as students of certain ethnicities, are affected the most by this unwelcoming environment. … At this time, we should unite together to face this public health concern rather than allowing preconceived notions to warrant targeting students of certain identities.” Indeed, flattening the curve is a collective mission and stigmatization does nothing but alienate and other minorities. Therefore, let’s get through this together. 함께 이겨냅시다.

Sungmin Cho can be reached at