In the West, the image of Asian people with masks is sometimes wielded, deliberately or not, as a signifier of otherness. But in East Asia, the act of wearing a mask is a gesture that communicates solidarity during an epidemic — a time when a community is vulnerable to being divided by fear, between the healthy and the sick.
Various studies of the SARS epidemic showed that mask-wearing created intimacy and trust in the face of danger. What the sociologist Peter Baehr noted for SARS goes, too, for today: “Mask culture” fosters a sense of a fate shared, mutual obligation and civic duty. It brings together people faced with a common threat and helps mitigate one of the secondary dangers posed by an epidemic: anomie, or the breakdown of social norms. Face-mask-related humor, a fixture of SARS, is back on social media in China today. Mask-wearing is a social ritual.
Understanding epidemics not simply as biological events but also as social processes is key to their successful containment. Members of a community wear masks not only to fend off disease. They wear masks also to show that they want to stick, and cope, together under the bane of contagion.