Confronting Mask Culture in China and Canada

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been much effort to answer questions of who is to blame for the escalating scale of the ongoing pandemic. Conflicts continue to arise around the goal of eliminating the spread of COVID-19, posing a direct threat to notions of unity. One highly disputed issue is mask-wearing. Should we be wearing them?

Most Chinese people answer positively without hesitation. In fact, even before the pandemic, many people wore masks on the street, especially during flu season and days with bad air quality. Wearing a mask displays one’s concerns over hygiene and shows modesty, some of the values often seen as important parts of Chinese culture.

However, in the Canadian context, mask culture has been more complicated. There has been a deluge of complaints over policies mandating wearing masks in public places. This is notable in Quebec, where a major demonstration against mandatory mask rules took place on August 8th. Thousands gathered in downtown Montreal with signs and slogans demanding “liberté”. One protestor interviewed by CBC News declared: “We want our liberty. We want the right to say yes to a vaccine. We want the right to decide. It’s our life, it’s our bodies, it’s up to us.”

The difference between Chinese and Canadian supermarkets in Vancouver gives further evidence of the difference between Chinese and Canadian values. In Vancouver, where nearly 20% of the population is Chinese, the biggest Chinese supermarket chain T&T now requires all customers to wear masks upon entering while almost no other local supermarkets have this rule. As In my own experience, in Richmond, BC – where almost half of the population are Chinese– there has been a salient increase in the use of masks compared to other regions of Vancouver. 

What causes the difference in attitude between Chinese and Canadians? Are Chinese being overdramatic or are Canadians irresponsible?

When it comes to a collective crisis like this, behaviour tends to be related to notions of collectivism and individualism. One may say that the Canadian protests display greater support for individualism over collectivism. However, in reality, the difference stems from how people from different parts of the world view the idea of collectivism. For Chinese, fulfilling social obligation arises out of moral responsibility. For hundreds of years, Chinese education has been based on Confucianism which stresses “benevolence, righteousness, and morality”. Additionally, the one-party rule imperceptibly shapes people’s mindsets, making them prone to unquestioned faith in government policy.

On the other hand, in Canada, people value social contracts and law as important for maintaining the harmony of society. Some people tend to be more suspicious of mandatory rules like mask mandates. BBC News interviewed a construction project manager in Kansas who suspected that enforcement of mandatory mask rules is an example of excessive government control. This idea seems to be echoed by protestors in Quebec: free will matters and the government has no right to take it away from any citizen.

Apart from different ideologies, another factor worth mentioning is the difference between how Chinese and Canadians view the behaviour of wearing masks itself. Many countries in Europe and North America have enacted anti-mask laws to prohibit the use of face coverings, which, in the past, have sometimes been associated with use in religion and politics. For example, Canada’s Criminal code states that “Disguise with Intent…… is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”. In my view, laws such as this have helped foster a negative view of masks in Canada. As a result, people might be more quickly abandon mask wearing out of a desire to conform to social norms. 

Mask culture is new to Canada, leaving some Canadians wary of mask-wearers, sometimes falsely taking them as seriously ill. However, in China wearing masks isn’t something to be alarmed about, and has even become a fashion trend over time. Many celebrities choose to wear masks when they go out to avoid the harassment of paparazzis. For ordinary people, wearing a mask is a healthy habit which shows respect to others. In general, Chinese acceptance of mask-wearing is significantly higher than in Canada.

Since the start of the global outbreak of coronavirus in March, we have been fighting the virus at a painful cost. Are humans capable of properly dealing with the pandemic? So far, China’s recovery has proved it possible.

During China’s recent eight-day national holiday, the China Tourism Academy estimated that 550 million tourists traveled around the country. With the trend of almost zero newly confirmed cases daily, it seems that coronavirus has retreated from China, the place where the virus originated from. Meanwhile, in Canada, the second wave is ramping up.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed Canada is at the “tipping point” in the pandemic as cases surged across most of the country, especially Ontario and Quebec where 80% of the new infections are from. Wearing a mask has been proven to effectively reduce the spread of virus, evident from China’s expedient recovery over recent months.

At this critical point, we need to distinguish what is truly important to us. For those protestors chanting “liberté”, what they should also consider is what a famous French saying teaches us: “La liberté des uns sarrête là où commence celle des autres.” In English, One person’s freedom ends where another’s begins. The discussion of freedoms should always be based on the premise of not impeding on other people’s rights, especially one’s right to living in a safe and healthy environment.

Edited by Zachary Beresin

Photo credits:Covid Attitudes” by Bluescruiser1949 Published July 24, 2020 . This work was sourced under an Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0) license. No changes were made.

 

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