By Rosie Harrison-Nirawan
The face mask has come to be recognised as the symbol of the COVID-19 pandemic; the small rectangle of cloth that was once rarely seen is now legally enforced in several countries around the world, available in all varieties of shape, design and colour. However, upon closer inspection the mask has revealed itself as a symbol of the rift between the East and the West, not simply in their respective handlings of the public health crisis, but in their wider philosophical outlook on social responsibility.
It is perhaps no surprise that YouGov data publicised that all of the countries already showing high levels of mask usage at the time of the outbreak, and continued to uphold this throughout, were in Asia. The lessons learned from the 2003 SARS outbreak have benefited many Eastern countries, who now have among the lowest COVID-19 death tolls in the world.
On the other hand, countries with the lowest mask usage and highest death tolls are predominantly shown to be Western: the UK has one of the highest Covid-19 death tolls in Europe, with only 38% of people claiming to wear masks frequently. Reasons cited for this included unclear government guidance, as well as leaders’ actions (Boris Johnson was first photographed wearing a mask in public in July, despite having had the virus in March).
But another aspect of this divide would nevertheless appear to lead back to political outlooks on the individual’s place in society, that have shaped the development of the East and West in different ways. The US, especially under the leadership of Donald Trump, has historically placed a strong emphasis on rugged individualism and the sanctity of rights, with careful scrutiny against any infringements on this. The mask, to many, constitutes one of these infringements.
The UK, Italy, Spain, Canada and the US are among some of the countries to have experienced mass anti-mask protests, where people have adopted slogans such as ‘long live liberty’, ‘personal freedom is inviolable’ and ‘unite for freedom’. The evident emphasis on individual liberty here takes precedent over public health or societal consciousness in what can be seen as a largely Western phenomenon.
It recalls the earlier influences of Western political forces such as Thatcher and Reagan with the birth of neoliberalism; where one said that “there is no such thing as society”, the other said that “government is the problem”. Stretching all the way back to Enlightenment thinkers such as René Descartes and Adam Smith, the West’s outlook on society has been consistently shaped by an incorruptible faith in the rights of the individual.
Across the Arctic Ocean, the Coronavirus pandemic has exposed the extents to which Eastern countries are willing to go to in order to suppress the illness. Such a disregard for civil liberties shocked and offended the West; Vietnam, for example, was criticised for ‘overreacting’ when, after one person tested positive, they immediately imposed travel restrictions and public health checks. They have since had thirty-five deaths.
In almost complete opposition to the political figures seen as the spearheads of modern democracy in the West, the socialist history of several Eastern countries has resulted in a very different outlook on the individual’s place in society. Under such influences, the suspension of certain privileges such as travelling, socialising and exposing one’s face in a grocery shop may seem like a worthy sacrifice to make if the result is a healthier collective society.
The current British death toll at the time of writing (71,675) from the virus must force us to undergo a humbling realisation that we have not successfully exercised societal cohesion. There will be several declarations regarding things that should have been done, things that could have been different and where we ought to be had we acted in such a way. In the grand scheme of things, a mask is a small price to pay, and indeed an effective prevention against the real epidemic: the advent of societal selfishness.