Welcome to the first post by a guest editor in our new column,Botanica World, in which we interview our favorite creative women about inspiration, sustainability, business, and social distancing for public health.
The objective of this series is to bring some positive content to the social media space.
Artists and creators have always persevered and thrived even in times of adversity, and we wanted to check in with our community to share experiences- we are all in this together.
Earlier today, we launched our Zero Waste Masks collection. We wanted to hear more about mask wearing etiquette from someone who has lived in a society where it is more common, as well as tips for first timers. This week's guest is Stephanie Chow, who is currently based in Hong Kong. Scroll down to read her editorial piece.
Masking and the Illusion of Others
Over the last few months, watching the course of the coronavirus pandemic spreading across the globe has felt surreal. I’m going into my third month of social distancing and isolation in Hong Kong, and occasionally it feels like I’m living one step ahead of time compared to my friends overseas. In January, when news of the coronavirus was just beginning to spread, I found myself counting how many servings of protein I had left at home while my friends in LA were taking advantage of unusually warm weather to gather outside on their patios. The feeling of living in two separate worlds was never more pronounced than when I would scroll through different apps on my phone: on Instagram, sunny days and backyard barbecues abounded; on WeChat, an unending stream of heartbreak emojis attached to detailed medical research, followed by the constant refrain, “Wuhan jia you!"* filled my feed.
As spring sets in, I find myself now in a strange reversal: many of my Chinese friends are cautiously spending more time outside, returning to work, and meeting up with their friends; and it is my Instagram feed that echoes with anxiety, frustration, and fear. I still remember when, after a period of weeks that felt more like years, new infections had finally begun to slow down in China and awareness was just beginning to pick up seriously in the West. We were barely emerging from the apex of a grueling crisis, so it gave us something of a whiplash when the first media reports from the U.S. counseled protection measures that declared, “masks won’t help!”
Of course, in times of uncertainty and especially in crisis, we rely on the advice of experts to guide us through. It’s confusing when we read media reports citing health experts who claim masks aren’t useful to prevent infection and are therefore inadvisable, only to be followed up a month later with a reversal. And it’s alarming when these mixed messages come from the highest levels of institutional government in order to account for shortfalls in supply.
I followed this topic closely, because like many others, I take expert advice seriously and wondered what it was all about, even though I’d already been masking for a month. In Hong Kong, we still have strong memories of SARS so it didn’t take long for the city to marshal together. Within 2-3 days after the news broke, everyone on the street was covered in surgical masks (among the elderly and those who were unaware, the prominence of community masking actually helped spread awareness), doors in high-traffic public spaces were propped open, and hygiene stations appeared in entrances of every public and business establishment. Hong Kong is an extremely dense city and it’s simply impossible for us to keep the recommended distance apart, so we had to make up for it with community vigilance. Many of us self-isolated at home before being asked because it was obviously too risky to be out, when being out usually means you end up crammed into an elevator behind someone’s elbow. And yet, the debate about masking spread even here: it’s not uncommon to see expats and foreigners declining to mask.
There’s a lot of talk about cultural differences in regards to masking, and it’s difficult not to view the Western reluctance to mask through a cultural lens. After all, a mask almost seems to serve a direct assault on Western notions of individuality, and perhaps this is why certain public figures who are proud exceptionalists outright refuse to wear one. But it’s important to understand that while the initial reluctance and aversion to face masking might be rooted in unconscious assumptions informed by the cultures we live in, masking itself is not limited to one culture over another. Any kind of norm and pattern of behavior experiences shifts in history that we often take for granted in our own human short-sightedness. It’s our nature to assume that the way things are is the way they’ve always been, but that’s simply not true.
In Hong Kong, the norm of widespread masking was first established during the SARS epidemic in 2001. When dealing with infectious diseases that have contagious and asymptomatic incubation periods, you may not know whether or not you’re sick at any time, and a mask helps ensure that you’re keeping others safe. And this is perhaps the most important point. In the beginning, I’m sure a well-meaning journalist might've asked, “As the coronavirus spreads, how can I keep myself safe?” And the logical answer from a health expert was—“hand washing!”
While that might be true, both the question and answer works from a presumption that prioritizes the individual. Hand-washing only helps an isolated person navigating a world populated by infectious Others. And while it is certainly a crucial component of community hygiene, what we are discovering through this pandemic is that it’s no longer feasible for us to continue promoting notions of “Me first” at the expense of all. In the face of widespread uncertainty when testing is widely unavailable in the U.S., there is no Other but ourselves. Any of us can be an asymptomatic carrier: the virus knows no classification but human. At the same time, the fallout of the pandemic disproportionately affects the disadvantaged due to the socio-political structures that we’ve built. The virus exposes our fabricated separateness and shows us how intimately we’re all connected. The separation on my two social media feeds, too, is false: an illusion created by technology, media, and international politics. Perhaps the greatest lesson that this virus has served us is that there are no divisions but the ones we’ve created ourselves.
*A Chinese expression of encouragement, similar to “Ganbare!” in Japanese or “We’ve got this!” in English.
Tips for Responsible Masking:
Put your mask on before leaving the house or entering your car.
Always handle your mask from the ear loops or straps when wearing or removing. Never touch the front panel of the mask, which should always be treated carefully as contaminated material.
Make sure the mask covers your nose and stretches under the chin. A good mask will fit snugly over these areas.
Keep your mask on at all times while you’re out. Taking the mask off, even partially, increases the risk of cross-contamination.
In Hong Kong, restaurants have remained open so I’m including this advice for when businesses may partially reopen in the U.S.—Bring an envelope with you to place your mask inside while eating and drinking. Masks should not be placed on the table, on seats, or exposed to the general environment. Throw the envelope away after each use.
After you return home, remove the mask first before washing your hands.
Thanks so much to Stephanie for sharing her words this week! We'll be back next week with another inspiring interview for you.