On March 31, Medical Director at Wesleyan University’s Davison Health Center Dr. Tom McLarney released a campus-wide email on public health updates. He stated, “There is no evidence that a person who does not have COVID-19 needs to wear a mask in public.”
As I read his email, I was puzzled and disappointed by this statement. In Hong Kong, where I was born and raised, face masks are a common sight. People wear a face mask not just when they’re sick, but also when they’re trying not to get sick. It is a way people have coped with epidemics in the past, and it is a gesture for community solidarity. In the West, however, face masks have become a stigmatizing symbol used to racialize those of Asian descent. Images of Asians in face masks have recently surfaced in media outlets, with misleading headlines that suggest people of Asian descent are the main carriers of the virus.
In light of this, Dr. McLarney’s statement almost seems negligent. It confirms the misguided fears and judgments people held against Asians and Asian Americans, which contributes to the ongoing hostility against Asian people. Every morning, I wake up to the news of yet another attack made against a person of Asian descent across the United States or accounts of friends being recorded, spat on, or shouted at for wearing face masks in public. Because of COVID-19, Chinese communities and Asians across the globe have been suffering from a sudden rise in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia. These xenophobic sentiments are rooted in misinformation and stereotypes that are unfounded and uncalled for.
Recently, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released new guidelines encouraging people to use “cloth face coverings” in public settings. Following this announcement, McLarney sent another campus-wide email on April 8 emphasizing the CDC’s new recommendations. However, this decision was incredibly protracted. It has come as a hard-learned lesson for officials, drawing on experiences of other East Asian countries, such as South Korea, that have successfully flattened the curve. Face masks are effective at slowing the spread of the virus if they are widely used, as they help prevent asymptomatic carriers from transmitting the disease unknowingly. Some medical experts have also argued that the mask provides a barrier from respiratory droplets, which is how COVID-19 is transmitted. Unfortunately, this reversal in recommendations has arrived a little too late and at the expense of many.
The use of face masks has been a quandary among medical experts around the globe. In the United States, officials previously shared the view that masks are unnecessary and ineffective at preventing transmission. On the other hand, the use of face masks has long been encouraged in Asia, where previous outbreaks of diseases such as SARS have taught people from Hong Kong that it is a civic duty to collectively slow the spread of the virus. In other words: while wearing a face mask may not protect yourself against others, it protects others against yourself.
These two diverging views bring up an interesting discussion about individualist versus collectivist cultures in the East and West respectively. While Americans see wearing masks and adopting social-distancing measures as “draconian,” the East prioritizes collective actions that are in the best interests of the community. The measures people in the East have taken, as science shows, have been successful in slowing the virus. This situation reflects the importance of cultural understanding and how it can help us to think more intelligently about navigating through problems posed by the pandemic.
Back in January, I, along with a few WSA senators of Asian descent, called for the WSA’s attention to the coronavirus issue that had become widespread in parts of Asia. However, other senators seemed to think that they were safe because the problem was too far away and that awareness education on seasonal flu was more critical. In March, when rumors about cancellation of in-person classes at Wesleyan began to spread, I called for the campus community’s support for Wesleyan’s decision and insisted that “preventative rather than reactive measures” will be best at flattening the curve. Nonetheless, when presenting the facts of COVID-19 and its spread, I was marked by peers as “spreading incendiary panic,” and my concerns were largely dismissed. Students started petitions against the campus closure, citing evidence that Wesleyan’s student population “are less at risk than other demographics.” People continued to plan their senior parties during move-out and defied social distancing measures.
These events are demonstrative examples of individualistic culture as it prevails in the United States—that people act for themselves, and make choices as they deem fit. However, in containing a pandemic, this attitude of “there’s them, and this is us” seems shortsighted. It is hurting the population in times when the need to move quickly to contain the pandemic should take precedence over individual choices.
By no means am I attempting to engage in an argument over which type of culture is “better.” Instead, these events shed light on the importance of cultural understanding in navigating problems on-campus and off. Culture fundamentally shapes our values, views, and our way of life. In the case of COVID-19, listening to those different from us could allow us to rethink how mask-wearing and social distancing measures are not “sacrifices,” but rather adaptations one must make to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Very often, concerns from international students and minority groups on campus are dismissed because they do not fit into the broader consensus of the community. However, we seem to have forgotten the ways in which our decisions are often shaped by our bounded rationality and cultural norms. In the case of COVID-19, this occurrence is found not only on a national level but also in our own community here at Wesleyan. As a community—whether that be our medical staff, administration or students—we are not being rational, nor are we being understanding. Instead of acting out based on our assumptions, let us seek to understand each other in ways we have not. Let us start to understand how culture and social norms affect the decisions we make as a community, for our community.
Shirmai Chung is a member of the class of 2022 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.