I vividly remember my first time in Tokyo: the scramble of black and white masks dotting the Shibuya Crossing in the warm rain. As an American, I had not grown up in a culture where wearing masks in public was common practice, and this scene made a strong impression.
In a sense, the ubiquity of face masks in Japan and Asia was a mysterious quirk. After asking Japanese friends, I’ve since learned of the various reasons masks are worn from protecting against illness, pollution, and allergies, to providing additional warmth, or to put on in place of lipstick.
In the face of a global public health crisis, people all over the world from Asia to America are wearing face masks. The primary purpose is clear: to prevent the spread of this novel coronavirus that has no cure or vaccine (yet), and which is still causing thousands of deaths a day. Masks are no longer the mystery; the virus is.
Interestingly, some experts say that the social habit of wearing face masks and other Japanese customs, such as and bowing instead of shaking hands, might hinder transmission of the virus, but the extent of this is still unknown.
The struggle with shortages
As many have seen, soaring demand for surgical masks has caused major shortages worldwide, even in hospitals where masks are most urgently required. in Tokyo, lines of people have queued outside pharmacies at dawn with the hopes of purchasing their ration (only one mask can be sold per person to prevent hoarding).
According to an article in The Mainichi, “the Japanese government is still struggling to combat supply shortages of face masks…more than three months after the items began to vanish from store shelves in the country. Fierce global competition to secure sufficient mask supplies is also driving up their prices.”
A survey conducted on April 18 and 19 by the newspaper found that 28% of respondents were using their masks only once and then throwing them away, while 45% said they were reusing masks by washing or disinfecting them. Another 15% said they were handcrafting masks.
Single-use masks: good for public health, bad for the environment
The commercial single-use mask sold in plastic, while helpful in slowing the spread of disease, is not good for the environment, especially our oceans.
I’ve spotted a few masks washed up on the beach in Okinawa, and I was especially struck by the sighting of some 100 masks washed up on a beach near Hong Kong. To echo the words of the conservationist Gary Stokes:
“In the future, we need to make sure we’re ready for pandemics like this and that we’re ready to deal with them in an environmental way; it doesn’t have to be one at the expense of the other.”