A nation built to withstand a pandemic

Long before COVID-19, social distancing, washing hands and mask-wearing were common in Japan

‘Rows of masked commuters line the train compartment, eyes trained on their phones, bodies held slightly away from each other.’ In Japan, this kind of a scene was par for the course on the metro long before coronavirus became a standard part of everyone’s lexicon. While the rest of the world dabbled in asymmetrical earrings and oversized handbags, in Japan, facemasks were the accoutrement à la mode for years. In 2017, Japan produced about 5.3 billion face-masks, up from 1.8 billion in 2008, according to Statista, a market and consumer data-providing firm.

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What was behind this mask mania in pre-COVID times? The obvious answer is a heightened awareness and concern among the public for health and hygiene. Those with cold and cough wore them so as not to infect others. Healthy people wore them so as to lessen their chances of being infected by the sick.

Sociologically minded explanations centred on the desire among many Japanese to minimise social interaction. A mask could make the wearer invisible, less likely to be noticed or talked to.

But the history of mask-wearing in Japan is longer and more chequered than these quick explanations, traversing a century worth of past pandemics, natural disasters, air pollution, new kinds of flora, allergies and technology. A massive outbreak of influenza in the early years of the 20th century first kicked off the custom of covering the face with scarves. Then the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 triggered a massive fire that filled the sky of the capital with smoke and ash for weeks. Facemasks became a standard sight on the streets of Tokyo and Yokohama.

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In the 1950s, Japan’s rapid post-War industrialisation caused rampant air pollution and a concomitant spread of the pollen-rich Japanese cedar tree, which flourished due to rising ambient levels of carbon dioxide. Large parts of the population developed allergic reactions to the pollen emitted by these trees. In 2003, the SARS scare once again caused a spike in mask-wearing, helped by a technological innovation that popularised a new type of non-woven material for masks.

In many ways, Japan is a country built to withstand a pandemic. Other than its extreme hygiene consciousness, one of the greatest social challenges the nation faces is the “problem” of social recluses. Called hikikomori, this cohort of upwards of a million people have chosen to end all social contact, often refusing to leave their homes for years. Long before the COVID-19 outbreak, social distancing and washing hands were already Japan’s super power.

Fast forwarding to the present, thus far Japan does seem to be weathering the coronavirus better than many other nations despite its proximity to China, early exposure to the virus and population density (the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is home to 38 million people). Speculation about the reasons for the relatively limited number of cases in Japan has included epidemiological and climatic factors. But increasingly, experts and the average person on the street are converging on the country’s mask-wearing habit as at least one crucial part of the puzzle.

Misguided advice

Many Western countries, including the U.S., have actively discouraged people from wearing masks, claiming they are of limited efficacy and simultaneously, if contradictorily, asking that available masks be earmarked for medical personnel caring for the sick. But the prevalent expert opinion in East Asian countries like Japan and China is that such advice is misguided. The greatest benefit of masking the masses, they argue, comes not from stoppering the mouths of the healthy, but from covering the mouths of people already infected who may be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

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That said, masks cannot be the only ingredient in any coronavirus-containment strategy. Japan suddenly began to see a spike in infections towards the end of March, which indicates that the archipelago is not as immune as the data from earlier in the month indicated. Some analysts have suggested that widespread mask-wearing could have engendered a false sense of security among the general population. Large, albeit masked, gatherings took place in Tokyo to view the annual blossoming of cherry trees, for example, despite the government’s advice to avoid crowds. Cases began to rise soon after.

Nonetheless, when compared to countries in Europe and the U.S., Japan has, for now, managed to moderate the growth of cases while keeping much of its economy open. And there is a close-to-unanimous belief that the humble mask is to thank.

(Pallavi Aiyar is a journalist based in Tokyo)

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