The act of wearing a mask in South Korea takes on a deeply social meaning. Masks are supposed to protect both the wearer and others from the dreadful COVID-19. But the emphasis is clearly placed on preventing the wearer from infecting neighbors, colleagues and even strangers.
If I happen to forget wearing a mask in public places (including office elevators and public restrooms), I am bound to witness angry expressions deepening on the upper half of the faces of people nearby. I bet the lower half of their faces, covered by their masks, would exhibit hostility or disgust or probably both.
Since Korea tends to exercise stronger social pressure on people than other countries that put more emphasis on the rights of independent-minded individuals (for instance, the US where its macho president takes strange pride in refusing to wear a mask), I just meekly follow the unwritten rule of keeping my face partially covered whenever and wherever possible.
The problem with this newly acquired habit is that I have no idea how long I have to stick with it. The practice is becoming increasingly hard to maintain as the peninsula is now being hit by a heat wave. Wearing a mask in hot weather raises at least the emotional temperature I feel, and it also makes breathing more difficult, if not outright dangerous.
But the suffocating heat is a less powerful pressure than the critical looks one gets when going about without wearing a mask here. Of course, we can safely take off masks when there is no one nearby. Nevertheless, I feel uncomfortable if my face is not properly covered by a mask even when I’m alone.
By the way, wearing a mask has a powerful benefit in the restroom as it clearly helps our olfactory organs fight off the less than aromatic smells permeating the room.
More worrisome than the psychological anxiety I struggle with is the murky outlook about the new coronavirus in the following months. On May 6, Korea relaxed social distancing rules, allowing businesses to reopen in a phased plan, after the nation brought the coronavirus outbreak under control. The policy decision was based on the fact that Korea responded better than many other countries mired in surging confirmed cases due partly to poor tracing and tracking, as well as the absence of strict mask-wearing rule.
The buoyant mood, however, was short-lived. As new coronavirus cases continued to register in double-digits, the government toughened its guidelines on wearing masks late last month. Passengers on buses, subways and taxis are advised to wear masks, and drivers can refuse to offer rides to those who do not have them on.
Regardless of the changes in the government guidelines, many apartment complexes, including the one where I live, put on a sign in red, “No face mask, no entry,” at the entrance. Many public and private facilities similarly push people to put on masks if they want to step into their compounds.
In short, the overall atmosphere regarding masks in Korea is that you must risk irking many people if you refuse to wear one when somebody else is present at a close distance. And there is no shortage of those who take the chance and face the consequences.
On Tuesday, a woman in her 40s reportedly refused to wear a mask in the subway, verbally attacked station employees and beat other passengers. Police said she made a scene at 11:50 a.m. when she was politely asked to wear a mask by another passenger on Subway Line No. 1. The woman responded in rage and acted unruly in a way that held the train up for seven minutes.
A station employee came by and offered a free mask to the woman, apparently to resolve the mini crisis. The woman, still uncontrollable, threw the mask away and protested violently. Worse, she slapped the head of a passenger with a bag. She was reported to have screamed as follows: “I don’t understand why I have to put on a mask since I’m not infected with the coronavirus.”
Not yet, and I hope she remains lucky. Whether she likes it or not, though, the coronavirus appears poised to stay with us for the time being, or much longer than we forecast. Either way, as far as masks are concerned, it’s is better to be safe than sorry.
By Yang Sung-jin (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Yang Sung-jin is the multimedia editor of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.