“Whether the masks actually work or not, having a community wear them brings it together symbolically, visually against this disease,” which is particularly vital during periods of social distancing and isolation, Lynteris said. For the general public, masks are less a reliable prophylactic against a virus than a sign that a society has learned painful lessons about taking epidemics seriously—more seriously than many in the United States and Europe have, until very recently at least.

Already, the threat of COVID-19 has eclipsed the stigma of mask-wearing in several nations, such as Austria, the Czech Republic, and Israel, where governments have instructed everyone to cover their face outside the home. The United States could be next; sporting a black cloth mask yesterday as he urged all of his constituents to follow his lead, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said, “I know this looks surreal [but] we’re going to have to get used to seeing each other like this.” Even Trump, within the space of a day this week, went from reluctantly contemplating mask-wearing to telling Americans that “there’s certainly no harm” in covering their face with a scarf. Taiwan is now donating millions of face masks to the U.S. and around the world.

It’s possible that Americans and Europeans will emerge from the current crisis, as East Asians emerged from the traumas of SARS and subsequent epidemics, with the conviction that an object they once associated with overreaction and otherness can actually be a means of cultivating prudence and togetherness.