A Look at Asia

Around this time last year when the Coronavirus outbreak started to escalate, the first lockdown shocked and confused us all. Disbelief was the common reaction to the first announcement that quarantine was planned for several weeks, and further frustration came about when that deadline kept being pushed back. But we were positive that by the time summer came around, we would resume our normal lives. Though much has happened since and updates on the pandemic are flooding in on the daily, besides our hope that this summer things will turn around, our lives have not nearly returned to what we have known before.

In fact, according to endcoronavirus.org and other research, Canada is neither among the countries that have been able to flatten the curve yet nor among those that are nearly there. Instead, we are red-flagged and urged to take significantly stronger action. It makes you wonder: as a first-world country that is considered advanced and progressive, how are so far behind in this regard? Compared to the rest of the world, we don’t lack scientific/ medical knowledge, nor do we lack the resources to take the necessary measures in order to fight this virus. So, what else is there that might hold us back in making the progress that others are making?

By looking at the more successful countries – especially in East and South-East Asia – there seems to be one common denominator that points to the different and deciding factor that makes them combat Covid-19 more effectively than we are, which is wearing masks (right).

To give you a concrete example, let’s compare Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, and Quebec’s biggest city, Montreal. Both are comparatively similar in size (area-wise), but with 4.7 million people Hanoi’s population is almost three times larger than Montreal’s. And yet Hanoi, being part of Vietnam, is one of the most successful places in the fight against the Coronavirus, one of the few that never had to go into a nationwide lockdown. Montreal, on the other hand, has been labeled ‘Canada’s hotspot’ for the virus and has consistently been marked as a red zone.

Of course, there are various reasons that come into play in the success of fighting COVID-19, but arguably one of the biggest hurdles we are still fighting in the West (compared to Asia) is our discipline (or the lack thereof) in wearing our masks. 

When masks were first introduced as one of the safety measures, there was a lot of resistance. It has taken strict rules about mask wearing and the threat of fines for people to respect this safety measure in public. However, it seems as though the understanding of how effective and necessary mask-wearing is, is still not strong enough. 

Many find face masks uncomfortable, and to some wearing masks makes them feel like they are losing control or freedom. So, although wearing masks actually gives everyone the opportunity to live as freely as possible within the current circumstances, it appears that our deep pride and value for individual freedom is what’s holding us back from practicing that freedom. 

This is not the case in Vietnam. Like other Asian countries, Vietnam has a collectivist culture, whereas in Canada the culture is based on individualism. This means that in situations where the whole country needs to work together in order to solve a problem, the Vietnamese have an advantage by having a mindset that focuses on the well-being of the community rather than that of the individual. Wearing masks, therefore, is not primarily for the protection of oneself but the protection of the ones around you – your community.

Having Vietnamese parents, I have been lucky enough to be able to visit Vietnam regularly ever since I was born. Ever since I can remember, people in Vietnam have been wearing face masks in public. And I don’t mean the thin, blue, disposable, medical-looking ones. Everyone has always worn nicely designed, cotton face masks that matched their outfits. This has been the norm in Vietnam, seemingly for at least over 27 years (because that’s how long I’ve known Vietnam for). 

With the community being the priority, it is much easier to look past your own discomforts because you know that the respect you give your peers you will equally receive back. With that being said, this is not at all to say that collectivism is better than individualism (nor vice versa). As somebody who subscribes to an individualistic lifestyle myself, I can certainly say that societies work both ways. 

However, because the fact that wearing masks protects yourself from catching the virus does not seem to be compelling enough enough, it is important to look at other cultures, because their practices can help us have the freedom that we value so much. After all, wearing masks does not only allow us to be part of the public and live our lives as normally as possible, but it will also help us to get our lives back sooner. 

The truth is that our governments can continue to implement store closures and curfews, but if we continue to neglect our individual safety by not doing our part and not wearing our masks (properly), things will unlikely improve. 

The sooner we can act as a collective and copy the mask-wearing practices of countries like Vietnam, the sooner we will also be able to return to a life without them -- that is if we wanted to. 

Changes are difficult for everyone, especially when they (temporarily) cause discomfort or compromise the lifestyle that you have known and strived in. But changes happen, and changes can be adapted to. As you probably have heard before, it takes 30 days to create a new habit. Generally speaking, humans are creatures of habit. It just takes some effort sometimes to break out of old ones and to create new ones. By the time we’re used to wearing our masks, we probably won’t be as willing to stop wearing them as we think today. 

As mentioned previously, in Vietnam masks have been worn for decades. If you think about it, why shouldn’t that be the case? With or without deadly viruses out there, our world - cities especially - are traps for sickness. If I had to take a guess, I would say that after this pandemic is over, we will all have heightened (psychological) sensitivities to germs, which will probably make us wear masks more than we thought we would. And maybe we will find out that flu seasons don’t have to be a thing after all?