By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Since COVID-19, masks have been a contentious subject between the East and West, and the left and right. However, masks have done more for me than I could have ever imagined, despite the fact that I dislike wearing one.
People made jokes about masks for a while. “If you see people not wearing masks, they are more likely to be Republicans.”
Here is another stereotype. “Asians are more likely to wear masks.” Not true. In February last year, my Asian American friend tried to argue that masks could not prevent the virus from spreading. She has a different opinion now.
President Joe Biden was in a celebratory mood on May 14 when he announced that Americans don’t have to wear masks if they are fully vaccinated. His motive was to encourage more people to get the vaccine. But the news literally handed me a topic to blog about, because it instantly sparked confusion and disagreement. We columnists welcome controversy.
Since then, more inoculated Americans have chosen to continue to wear masks, even though they have a choice not to. They believe masks will protect them from people who refuse to vaccinate, and are dishonest and selfish by not disclosing that they haven’t. That’s reversing the trend of so many Americans being hard-line resistors and skeptics toward masks last year. It could be because the majority of Americans had never lived through a pandemic before. It could be because the masks’ origin had its roots from Asia.
The White House and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) gave conflicting messages on mask-wearing during the first few months of the pandemic. Trump’s Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams posted on Instagram, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” on Feb. 29, 2020, according to USA Today. He reversed it later.
Dr. Anthony Fauci echoed the same sentiments and reversed it later, too. Fauci explained that he didn’t recommend masks because he was afraid supplies would run out for health care workers if the general public bought up all the masks.
The biggest naysayer is, of course, former President Trump. He’s not only a disbeliever, his words and actions discouraged Americans to mask up. During the last week of his campaigning, fundraising rallies, and events at the White House, no masks were required. It is no surprise that more than 130 members of his security team were infected with COVID, according to the Washington Post. And 48 staff members connected to the White House tested positive, according to Wikipedia. Of course, he himself, along with First Lady Melania Trump and their son Baron, got COVID. His reckless behavior and words angered many, including my relatives.
“Trump has killed many people,” one said. Newspaper editorials, such as one by the Boston Globe, accused him of having blood on his hands.
Masks are the only weapon
Debadutta Dash, who had just returned from India before a travel ban was imposed, couldn’t agree more that masks help stop the virus from spreading. India has one of the highest COVID deaths and infections in the world. In one day, India reported over 4,500 deaths this week.
When Dash was there, he was shocked that no one wore masks at a wedding of 450 people at his hotel. He was so uncomfortable, he left and went to another hotel. Again, there was a big wedding in the second hotel, and no one masked up.
After India was doing well fighting COVID, people started to take it easy, Dash said. Now all kinds of virus variants are turning up in India.
“When the virus got into someone’s body, it restructured and became deadly,” he said.
Even vaccines are not 100% effective. Dash said a Bellevue man, Prem Lal Bahoth, who was an IT professional and an employee of Quadrant Resources, contracted COVID and died during his visit to India in April. He got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine before his trip to India. The man had a wife and an 18-month-old baby girl.
I know masks work even though I am not crazy about wearing them. I learned the lesson from Hong Kong, where I was raised. So far, my family and I have benefitted from keeping the virus away, thanks to masks and other safety precautions.
For the week of May 11, there were zero COVID cases among its residents even though it’s the 4th most densely-populated region in the world. That’s a milestone. But Hong Kong has achieved that milestone a few times this year. The only cases were from travelers flying into the city.
Masks are people’s only weapon in Hong Kong. Unlike some Americans who resist masks, no one needs to force Hong Kongers to wear them. Everyone wears one, even during the hot summer with temperatures in the 90s.
Other strategies like social distancing and getting vaccinated haven’t been implemented effectively in Hong Kong.
Social distancing is impossible with packed modes of transportation, such as the subways, buses, and minibuses. And certainly not elevators. Hong Kong has the highest number of tall buildings in the world with 9,000—exceeding New York and any other Chinese city.
What do Hong Kong people do when riding an elevator? My relative said, “If I can wait for a less crowded elevator, I will wait for the next one. If there are four to six people in there, each of us will stand facing the elevator wall.”
Most of my Hong Kong relatives have not been vaccinated. They are hesitant because each of the vaccines— Sinovac, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer—has its share of problems. So vaccination has not been fully embraced there. For the time being, many of my friends and relatives are still enforcing their own lockdown at home. Can you imagine how depressing it must be, to be living in your self-made prison?
When COVID deaths and infection rates spiked last year, our business was devastated. Last May, Outdoor Research (OR) called us to place classified ads, while most businesses were shutting down and laying off people. OR was hiring, expanding, and had over 100 openings for manufacturing masks, not just sportswear. That was a breath of fresh air.
So I interviewed them and wrote about OR. The mask idea inspired OR, which in turn, inspired me to write about their innovation and job creation in the spirit of “Made in America.” I love that it gave us both story ideas and business for the Northwest Asian Weekly.
It is even more exhilarating to learn that a Chinese-Malaysian epidemiologist, Dr. Wu Lien-teh, invented the surgical face mask, leading to the development of N95 masks, during the Manchurian Plague in 1910, in northwestern China.
Wu used surgical tape and gauze tied together to cover his face. His French colleague, who didn’t believe in Wu’s pioneering concept and refused to wear the mask, died later.
You still need masks
Seattle – King County Public Health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin urged people to wear masks on his Twitter account, even though CDC has said you don’t have to if you are fully vaccinated. He agreed with a statement saying that it was unwise for the CDC “to lift the mask mandate for vaccinated people so early,” according to the Seattle Times. Only 37.5% of the U.S. population is vaccinated as of May 18, not even half.
So many of us are thinking about trips these days. Bring your masks along because you need them on the plane. The CDC guideline towards masks is to wear them when visiting hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and homeless shelters, in addition to flying on a plane.
Don’t leave home without a mask. Stick one in your pocket or purse, just in case you might run into someone that you suspect has not been vaccinated. It is now a modern savior before the pandemic is really over.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.