Americans Are Now Learning What People in East Asia Already Knew About Masks

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conceded in an announcement on Friday that cloth masks do not protect against the coronavirus as effectively as surgical masks or respirators.

In East Asia, a pronouncement like that would not be necessary because it is already common knowledge.

The region’s mask-wearing customs vary because each country has responded over the years to different sets of epidemiological and environmental threats. But this much is clear: Surgical masks have generally been the public face covering of choice for protection against all manner of epidemics, allergies and pollution.

They have also been the go-to mask for those who cover their faces in public, as a courtesy, to prevent others from catching their sniffles.

In Hong Kong, surgical masks were common during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 and have been worn widely in public throughout the current pandemic. Official government guidance in the Chinese territory recommends surgical masks and does not even mention cloth ones.

In mainland China, a Spring 2020 survey of mask wearers who were not health care workers found that nearly 94 percent of them wore the disposable variety. Only 8.5 percent of them reported wearing cloth masks, according to the study, which was conducted by researchers at universities in China and the United States.

In South Korea, the mask of choice is a KF-94, the local equivalent of the N95 respirator.

In early 2020, the government encouraged citizens to wear cloth masks instead amid a respirator shortage, said Jaehwan Hyun, a history professor at Pusan National University in South Korea who has studied the history of masking in the country. But after a public outcry, the Korean Medical Association said that only respirators were effective.

“It is impossible to see cloth-mask-wearing people here,” Professor Hyun said. The rare exception, he added, would be people demonstrating their opposition to disposable masks on environmental grounds.

In Japan, there is no official requirement for people to wear surgical masks, said Tomohisa Sumida, a visiting research fellow at Keio University.

“Still, most people learn that surgical masks are better, and keep wearing masks even outdoors,” he said, adding that the government recommends “nonwoven” masks.

In the spring of 2020, former President Shinzo Abe’s administration distributed washable cloth face coverings, known a “Abenomasks,” to millions of residents. But the masks were deeply unpopular, in part because people preferred surgical ones.

As of late October, more than 81 million of the masks were still in storage. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in December that he had instructed officials to attempt to distribute them to people in need — and, if not, to dispose of them by March.

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