Satoshi Ikeuchi, Religion and Global Security, University of Tokyo

COVID-19 is breaking down psychological barriers between the East and the West. The custom of wearing face masks are quickly spreading into the daily life of the US, UK, Europe and the Middle East.

The use of masks covering mouth and nose in public was long considered a peculiar East Asian custom. Till the very recent past in the West or the Middle East, someone wearing a mask or covering the face was considered suspicious or seen possibly infected by a transmissible disease.

There were even occasions in which it was explicitly banned by law to cover faces in public in some European countries. Wearing masks was an almost criminal offence to the public order signifying one is possibly a terrorist or bank robber.

Now, things are totally upside down. In many East European and Middle Eastern countries, wearing masks in public is compulsory.

Finally, on April 3, even President Trump succumbed to this trend and endorsed the use of face masks as “additional voluntary public health measures,” even if he himself still resisted to wear them.

There were days when eating raw fish like sushi or sashimi was considered as a barbaric and unsanitary custom of savage society. Now sushi is the epitome of the fine cuisine globally. A similar cultural change may be happening on the mask-wearing.

There are still skeptical views on the effect and evidence of wearing mask. In one of its mutually contradicting statements on April 6, The World Health Organization (WHO) stopped short of recommending wearing masks for the lack of evidence of effectiveness in preventing infection.

But it seems to miss the point.

In this respect, the new guideline published on April 3 by the US Centers for Disease (CDC) is more relevant in the context of this custom. CDC recommended wearing non-medical mask or more generally covering face with a cloth when people go out, not for preventing them to be infected, but for preventing them to infect others, in case they are unknowingly infected without symptoms. The point is, wearing mask is not for protecting oneself, but for the courtesy to others.

Here, East and West finally met.

Making others feel uncomfortable and threatened by talking to them without wearing a mask is a grave breach of civility in the sensitivity of Japan and other East Asiaian countries. Wearing masks is an act of altruism, not an act of egoistic self-preservation. This sense of altruism prevalent in their culture is one of the keys behind the fact that the East Asian countries surrounding China have been relatively successful so far, in suppressing the number of infections and deaths.