More than anything else, the face mask has come to symbolize the COVID-19 pandemic. It stirs strong emotions and deep prejudices. It has been at the center of public health debates and the turbulent US presidential election campaign.
Since COVID-19 first began its spread from China, much has been written about differences in face mask use in the “East” and “West.” Examples from the “East” come primarily from South Korea, Japan and China, while the “West” usually refers to Europe and North America. Though COVID-19 is a global pandemic, discussions of masks focus on these regions and thus ignore large swaths of the world’s population.
The problem with “East” and “West” is that the grouping reinforces outdated and often racist stereotypes. The case of South Korea underscores this point. Mainstream media reports on South Korea often focus on “cultural” reasons for prevalent mask wearing.
One often cited reason is “Confucianism.” This argument holds that the Confucian tradition makes Koreans “respectful,” both of authority and other people. As the pandemic spread, the argument goes, Koreans not only followed government directives to wear masks, but did so out of respect for other people.
The problem with this argument is that the Confucian tradition is only one of several important philosophical and religious traditions to have influenced the development of Korean culture. Buddhism and indigenous shamanism have strongly influenced traditional culture. Since the late 19th century, Christianity has had an important influence. Today, these traditions mix and overlap to varying degrees in individuals.
Another problem is that South Koreans are not docile followers of government directives. If they were, Park Geun-hye would mostly likely have completed her term as president of South Korea. In late 2016, millions of people poured into the streets of South Korean cities to demand her impeachment. That succeeded, and she was removed from office in March 2017.
The demonstrations against Park Geun-hye had deep roots. In 1987, massive street demonstrations against the authoritarian regime of Chun Doo-hwan succeeded in starting the process of democratization. In 1960, massive demonstrations led to the fall of Syngman Rhee and a brief period of democracy before Park Chung-hee’s coup d’etat in 1961. Clearly, South Koreans are not blindly submissive to authority.
Yet another problem with the argument is that South Koreans wear masks because they are magically “respectful” of other people. Motivations for public behavior are difficult to measure in South Korea as elsewhere. Some people may be motivated out of concern for the health of others, but they could just as easily be motivated by a desire for privacy or self-protection. We simply don’t know.
So why did South Koreans start wearing masks as soon as COVID-19 arrived in the country? Two practical reasons offer better explanations. First, South Koreans were, to varying degrees, familiar with masks. The SARS outbreak in late 2002 started in nearby China, causing South Koreans became cautious when traveling abroad. The 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic raised consciousness of infectious diseases to a new level, causing more people to use masks for protection.
Increased awareness of infectious diseases coincided with a worsening fine dust problem. People first started to turn to face masks on dusty days, particularly in the spring. The steady rise in disposable income during the past two decades made masks more affordable, which helped their diffusion. Still, wearing masks varied considerably among individuals.
The second practical reason stems from the first. The first COVID-19 outbreak in China looked serious. When the disease spread to South Korea, health officials focused on testing and tracing and urged people to wear masks until that infrastructure was in place. South Korea naturally wanted to avoid the massive lockdowns and draconian quarantines that China had experienced. People responded positively because they are familiar with masks and quickly adopted them as a practical tool to prevent the spread.
At other critical junctures in recent history, South Koreans have shown a similarly practical response. During the financial crisis of 1997 and 1998, for example, South Koreans hunkered down and focused on getting through the crisis. The same holds true for the 2008 global financial crisis, though that affected South Korea less than most other countries.
South Korean practicality offers a basic lesson for other countries when a crisis hits: Use available resources quickly to lessen the impact while working on solutions. This lesson is about good governance, not “culture,” and something that other countries can learn, if they have the will to do so.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean-language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.