Why do guilos not wear facemasks?

April 06, 2020 09:05
Photo: Reuters

My neighbour, agitated, points at the newspaper photograph of a group of foreigners drinking at a bar, close together and without facemasks. “Why do guilos (鬼佬) not wear facemasks?” she asked.

“For us, it is a sign of communal responsibility in the face of this pandemic. It shows we are taking it seriously. In Asian countries where people wear the masks, the virus has been controlled. In the West, where they do not, the virus is out of control. What does that tell you?” said Ellen Leung, a retired teacher.

Leung expresses the consensus view of Hong Kong people and the anger that foreigners, especially those recently returned from aboard, are spreading the virus by their indiscipline.

She is right. “Wearing masks is something alien to our culture,” said Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on March 30. Why the big difference?

The people of Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore have, in recent memory, lived through SARS, martial law and emergencies: go a little further back and you have civil war and military service for men.

This DNA has made them quick to accept measures needed to fight the virus and work collectively against it.

But not so in Western Europe and the United States. Since 1945, they have enjoyed peace, economic growth, social stability and increasing freedoms. Their governments were initially reluctant to take measures that would limit these freedoms; this delayed the proper response to the disease.

Another factor is the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which recommends that people not to wear masks unless they are infected with Covid-19 or are caring for someone who is. Many Hong Kong people are sceptical. What if you are infected but have no symptoms and are unaware of it? A mask prevents germs from your mouth and nose entering the air and infecting others. Many also think the WHO is flawed -- too beholden to the mainland and not daring to criticise it.

Thirdly, until recently, people in Europe and the U.S. did not take the virus seriously, believing that it was a Chinese and an Asian problem.

“My cousin lives in Germany and works in a local company,” said Wong Lilin, a bookseller in Hong Kong. “In January and February, she wore a mask to the office and everyone thought she was sick and avoided her. She had to take it off.” To wear a mask was to draw attention to yourself and, if you were Asian, invite abuse and criticism as a potential carrier.

Fourthly, many countries in the West did not and do not have a sufficient supply of masks for everyone. So, to guarantee that this limited supply went to health workers and avoid panic buying, governments did not advise people to buy them.

To make up for this, Hong Kong people have sent many boxes of them to relatives and friends in the U.S. and Europe. They use couriers – at a high cost – and the Post Office. But, at the end of March, Hong Kong Post announced the suspension of normal airmail services to many countries in Europe and Canada, leaving only Speedpost and seamail.

Now, however, in Europe the pandemic has become so serious that governments have changed their policy. Austria, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bosnia-Herzegovina have made the wearing of face masks compulsory outside the home.

At the weekend, the governments of the United States and France reversed their position – both advised their citizens to wear facemasks when they go outside.

Last week Klaus Reinhardt, president of the German Medical Association, told his people: “My advice – get simple protective masks or make your own and wear them in public spaces.”

This has set off a race between China and Taiwan to supply them. So far Taiwan is winning. Last week it promised to donate seven million masks to EU countries, the UK and Switzerland, more than three times China has promised the EU.

Taiwan is producing 13 million masks a day, thanks to government incentives and procurement guarantees made several weeks ago. It has also offered 100,000 masks a week to the U.S., in exchange for materials to produce hazmat suits. “A political plot to pursue independence with the help of the epidemic,” said Beijing.

So the guilos will have to swallow their pride and put the masks on.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.