As coronavirus cases soar nationwide in many U.S. states, there is one thing every American could do that would make a difference.
Wear a mask.
President Donald Trump’s miserable mockery of masks has morphed them into a partisan political symbol in this country. But in most democracies that have had the greatest success in fighting COVID-19, including South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan, mask-wearing is common practice.
The Japan example is of special interest to Americans, because its government, like ours, badly fumbled the initial handling of the virus. Yet it has suffered less than 1,000 virus deaths in a country of 126 million people. One key thing Japan did right was near-universal masking.
And the history of Japan’s masking habits holds surprising lessons for Americans — while offering hope they could be duplicated here.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was slow and erratic in responding to COVID-19. He instituted no mandatory lockdowns on the public. His distribution of masks to each household was botched, while the government’s distribution of funds to the public got mired in red tape.
Yet masking became almost universal, and though there is no proof it was a magic bullet, Japan’s virus success indicates it had a serious impact. The country has experienced only 7.68 deaths per million, compared with 385 per million for the United States.
Of course, many ascribe this success to Japanese culture, and a common mask-wearing tradition in East Asia. “In Japan, there is a culture of concern for other people, and very strong behavioral norms,” I was told by Linda Chance, associate professor of Japanese studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “If the government says ‘wear a mask,’ they will.” As a model to their country, Japan’s emperor and empress have masked in public.
Other social factors also contribute. Japanese “don’t do handshaking and kisses on the cheeks and speak more softly, and mask-wearing is common to protect against cedar pollen in the spring and during flu season,” notes Jeffrey Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University’s Japan Campus in Tokyo.
Yet, Kingston cautioned me that the history of Japan’s mask-wearing could not be attributed solely to local practices. “Culture becomes the utility infielder of explanations [for mask-wearing],” he said. “But if this is so, how come Americans had a mask-wearing culture when Japan didn’t?”
Indeed, according to a fascinating blog post by Harvard University historian Andrew Gordon, “the modern medical origins of masks worn for health purposes are Western.” They were developed in the mid-1800s in the United States and Europe to protect miners against coal dust but adapted in Asia in the early 20th century to prevent the spread of contagious diseases. During the post-WWI “Spanish flu” epidemic, Japan encouraged mask-wearing, including in its colonies of South Korea and Taiwan.
But — and here is Gordon’s key point — there was a “massive American commitment to mask wearing as a strategy” to protect the military and the general public in that same post-WWI era.
Adds Kingston, “More American soldiers died of Spanish flu than died from World War I fighting. Such a catastrophe shocked people. Americans used to be very confident with masking.”
That confidence continued, apparently, until the 1930s, when masking was even shown in U.S. movies and used as a commonsense response to flu.
But over the following decades, writes Gordon, ”Two processes unfolded in parallel, inverse fashion: a deepened commitment to masks for protecting health in East Asia and the disappearance of the commitment in at least one nation.”
Of course, that nation is the United States in the era of Trump.
So it is easy to assume that, as Trump supporters and many younger Americans rebuff masks, this country could never resume a mask culture. Vice President Mike Pence, who heads Trump’s coronavirus task force, almost never masks. And when Trump himself makes fun of Joe Biden for masking and mocks the practice in interviews and rallies, it’s hard to see masking becoming widespread. The White House sloughs off the masking issue to local officials, who aren’t well-positioned to enforce it.
Of course, Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx are begging people to mask, and some GOP governors are getting desperate enough to demand it. But when national leadership is absent, it becomes too easy to assume that an American culture of selfishness trumps sanity, led by the ego-in-chief in the White House.
And yet, surprisingly, recent polls show that most Americans support masking. About seven in 10 Americans say people who go to public places where they may be near others should wear masks most of the time or always, according to a mid-June Pew poll. And a mid-June Fox News poll found that 80% of Americans have a favorable view of mask-wearers.
So the Japan example is indeed relevant. Americans appear ready to resume the mask-wearing culture they adopted a little over a century ago.