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[Newsmaker] [Feature] Not everyone is ready to unmask

Mandate or not, some Koreans plan to stick with face coverings to escape lookism


Omicron appears to be losing its grip in South Korea, raising hopes for a return to pre-pandemic life. For many Koreans, this would entail a farewell to face masks, a daily nuisance that they had to get used to for the past two years. 

But not all are happy to ditch their masks.

Some say masks are one of the good things that came out of the pandemic in a society obsessed with looks. 

“After two years (of wearing masks), it doesn’t bother me too much to wear one for a long time. Besides, I love not catching a cold, not having to wear makeup and not getting unwanted attention from strangers,” said Cho Hyun-sun, an office worker in her 40s. Cho said she plans to continue covering her face even when the mask mandate is lifted. 

Currently, it is mandatory for people aged 14 or older to wear a face mask when indoors. When outside, the rule is to mask up if a 2-meter distance cannot be observed between people at all times. But almost all Koreans, regardless of age, wear masks whenever they step outside. 

Off the omicron peak, South Korea is easing social distancing rules step by step. A removal of mask rules would mark the most symbolic of all measures taken so far, showing that the country is finally coming out of the pandemic’s long tunnel. 

“We have started discussions on what to do with overall distancing, including lifting the mask-wearing rule,” Sohn Young-rae, a health ministry official, said at a press briefing on Tuesday. 

“We are considering comprehensive measures for a post-omicron scheme ... and the situation is optimistic, as weekly infection cases have been on a steady decline,” he added. 

New COVID-19 cases are trending downward, albeit with large daily fluctuations. The country counted 195,491 new infections on Wednesday, after touching a seven-week low of 90,928 on Monday. The peak in the 24-hour tally was 621,180 recorded on March 16. Total caseloads have reached 15.8 million out of a national population of 51.6 million, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency.

Ready to ditch masks? 

It was not difficult to find people who said just not yet. Many cited the still very real threat of the coronavirus. 

Kim Bo-min, a 37-year-old female florist living in Bundang, Gyeonggi Province, plans to continue wearing a mask whenever she is outside her home. Going mask-free would certainly feel good, but doing away with the precaution now is like putting vulnerable people at a higher risk of infection, she said. 

“Every time I read news articles about elderly people or children who have died after being hospitalized with the virus, I get scared and realize I have become numb to the virus,” said Kim, who recovered from COVID-19 in December last year. 

“Wearing masks is one of the easiest ways to protect ourselves and society,” she said. 

On Tuesday, a total 171 people lost their life to the virus. As of Tuesday, the country’s total death toll is just 150 shy of 20,000.

Omicron may be retreating, but there could be new variants which spark a fresh wave of infections soon, said Song Yoo-jin, a 24-year-old college student at Gachon University. 

“Some say the possibility is low for the daily tally to spike after the government scraps the outdoor mask mandate, but what if new mutations of COVID-19 like the latest XE variant keep coming out? There is no harm in trying our best to contain the virus,” Song said. 

Pregnant with her second child, Kang Ji-hyun also said it was not the time to let go of masks yet. 

“The elderly, children and pregnant women with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable, so it is important to reduce the risk of virus transmission for them as much as possible through stringent measures to curb the virus.”

Some also pointed out the risk of reinfection, which appears to be higher than previously thought. 

“Some people who have had the virus are so eager to go mask-free. But there is a risk that they could get reinfected. Even if they don’t get sick again, they could still spread the virus to others, which I think is one of the reasons why we all need to stick with masks for a little longer,” said Hong Suk-won, an office worker in his 40s in Anyang, Gyeongi Province. 

Liberating feeling 

Whether or not wearing masks is needed for the sake of public health, office worker Cho Hyun-sun would choose to wear a mask for her own personal benefit. 

“Hiding behind a mask is liberating – this is something I learned unexpectedly from the pandemic,” she said. 

Kim Si-eun, a 27-year-old office worker who lives near her company in Mapo-gu, western Seoul, also likes the sense of anonymity that a mask provides. 

“I don’t want to bump into coworkers or friends when I wear no makeup. Also, I find a certain comfort with my mask on, since people around me pay less attention to how I look.”

On social media, many users shared their preference for a masked life – with or without a raging pandemic. 

“Everybody is masked up. No one notices me and I pay attention to no one. I like this,” a Twitter user wrote. 

Another tweet by a different user listed the pros of wearing a mask, such as not having to worry about how her breath smells, being able to hide her facial expressions around annoying people, and saving money on cosmetics. At the end of the list, the user added, “Plus, I look 10 years younger with the lower half of my face covered.” 

Masks help deflect the gazes of strangers who often judge others based on their looks, said Kim Rena, a 21-year-old college student who has lived in Toronto, Canada for over a decade. 

“I often feel that many Koreans on the street -- especially girls -- judge each other, scanning their looks. They are obsessed with looking good and how they are viewed by others,” Kim said. 

“Wearing a face mask gives me a sense of relief from society’s obsession with physical beauty.” 

Bae Kyu-han, a professor of sociology at Kookmin University, said face coverings have provided a relief to those feeling stressed out in a lookist society like South Korea. 

“We can’t deny that attractive individuals are treated better than those who are not in Korea, including in the job market. Wearing a face mask can’t be a fundamental solution to the stress related with lookism, but people can find relief by blocking people’s gazes,” the expert said. 

For people with insecurity issues, masks can have real psycological effects. On an episode of the TV show “My Golden Child” aired on Feb. 25, renowned psychiatrist Oh Eun-young advised a father that he’d better not try to take off his daughter’s mask against her will. 

“The mask is like protection gear for her,” Oh said of the teenage girl, who has selective mutism and insisted on wearing a mask even at home when the TV crew was around. 

‘We’ll just follow the tide’ 

There appears to be another group of people for whom the decision, or the timing, to go mask-free hinges largely on what others do. 

“Even if the government lifts the outdoor mask requirements later this month, I will probably continue to wear a mask for the time being until the majority of people take off their masks in public spaces,” said Ko Min-ji, a special school teacher in her 30s living in Gangseo-gu, Seoul. “I don’t want to draw attention from people for being bare-faced when there are only a few people walking around without masks.”

Lee Jung-hoon, a 28-year-old Seoul resident who works in the sales department of a cosmetics company in Yongsan-gu, shared Ko’s view, saying he would take off his mask only when it doesn’t invite criticism. 

“My boss and coworkers are in favor of strict antivirus measures. They often criticize those who don’t wear masks in cafes and restaurants. I’m afraid of what they are going to say about me if they see me without a mask outdoors,” he said.

Lim Dong-kyun, a professor of sociology at Seoul National University, said the psychology behind Koreans’ high rate of mask wearing compared to other countries during the pandemic has to do with their “go with the flow” mindset. This mindset also comes into play as Koreans weigh whether or when to ditch masks. There is a mechanism of social pressure called “nunchi” that makes many Koreans to conform to the popular beliefs or behaviors of the people around them, Lim added. 

“Koreans are good at gauging others’ moods or thoughts to create unity and collective harmony within a group, which is called ‘nunchi’ in Korean. ... People are likely to decide whether to conform to eased rules for face coverings after observing what others are doing, or reading news articles about people’s responses,” he said. 

That also explains why Koreans accepted masks as a daily necessity, follow government-set distancing rules and got vaccinated en masse in a short period of time, free of all the debates seen in Western countries, the expert added.  

By Choi Jae-hee (