Masks & The Pandemic: A Past & Future Perspective

As we proceed to make our way out of the COVID-19 pandemic, all most of us would like to do is go back to the way things were.  But what will the new normal be? And how will it affect working and commuting? Mask wearing, sanitising, and a need for more contactless applications within the public space have become quite normal. Mask wearing however, while relatively new within Western society, has been a norm in parts of Asia since the 1950s and even before such time.  

Asia’s relationship with mask wearing can be traced back to Japan and it’s handling of the influenza pandemic of 1918, after which it endured the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and saw its skies peppered with smoke and ash for weeks. Face masks became an accessory on the streets of Tokyo and Yokohama and after another global flu pandemic in 1934, Japan’s love affair with face masks was cemented. However, Japan, and maybe more appropriately, the East’s (China, Taiwan, Korea and The Philippines) tendency to masking up wasn’t just born of circumstance or out of public health measures, but instead has its origins in philosophy; a philosophy best explained by Taoism and aspects of Chinese Traditional Medicine in which breathing plays a key role in good health. Throw in the fact that Japan has harboured a social courtesy around cough victims not wanting to spread anything, coupled with East Asia’s philosophical reasonings, and what becomes quite apparent is that mask wearing in this part of the world predates germ theory and disease and comes from deep within East Asian culture.  

history of face mask

As a result, masks or personal protective equipment enjoy more utility in East Asia. For instance, Japanese women mask up when there’s no time to apply makeup while Philippine motorcycle riders are known to wear masks to ingest less exhaust fumes in dense traffic – a task perfectly suited for military grade carbon filtration like the type found in the Cambridge Mask PRO. In Taiwan, masks get worn in winter for warmth and to provide disease control from airborne germs and air pollution, and more recently in Japan, youngsters have started using masks as social firewalls. It’s not unusual to see healthy teens wearing masks and headsets to make others aware of their disinterest to communicate or young women looking to avoid being bugged in public spaces while also enjoying anonymity.  

It would be unfair not to mention that mask wearing also greatly increased in Asia after the SARS outbreak in 2002 and the 2006 bird flu panic. In essence, mask wearing is quite entrenched in Asian culture, and thus when the time came for the rest of the world to also mask up, these countries were quick to up the ante. But now that the world is beginning to gravitate towards normalcy, questions that abound revolve around the application of masks in a post-pandemic world. Will we continue to wear masks, and if so, in what settings? 

Is there a post pandemic future for masks?

Even in a post-pandemic world, there will be certain settings in which that extra layer of protection will be warranted, such as a packed subway ride or when paying a visit to a friend or loved one in a hospital. And then there’s the dramatic drop in deaths by influenza that mask-wearing, along with its associated practices, managed to bring down. In the US, during the 2019 – 2020 flu season, 24 000 people died. As of April 1st last year, 500 people and among them 1 child had died of flu, and traditional flu season ends in May, you do the math. Once COVID-19 is completely contained, masking up won’t be a 24/7 affair, but it’s justification for use in care facilities, hospitals and high-impact settings such as public transport and crowded spaces is likely to remain strong. Masking up should become part of cold and flu season, when airborne transmissions are at an all-time high. And it would make sense too; if you’re in an office setting and you’ve got a cold or a flu, wearing a mask won’t just prevent you from spreading unwanted germs, it will also show a great deal of consideration to your colleagues. If both parties are masked up, the likelihood of infection is even less. Of course, first prize goes to the person who stays at home the minute the sniffles start.   

mask post pandemic

Then there’s the fact that the West might simply have to play catch-up with modern society. In East Asia the utility of the mask is fully observed while its usage is also stooped in cultural tradition. Both the East and West share similar technologies and the industrial processes that avail these technologies. Both parts of the world are prone to wildfires, smog, air pollution, viruses, bacteria, and volatile organic compounds such as those typically found in aerosol cans and other cleaning products. These aren’t things that are going to disappear overnight. The extent to which masks get used in the West might be lessened in a post-pandemic world, but mask usage and its multiple applications, brought to greater light by the recent events of the last two years, is here to stay. 

Work & public transport in the UK post-pandemic

mask during commute in the pandemic

The landscape of working and commuting has certainly changed, and as these two bastions of society are interwoven, changes in both don’t just affect their respective categories, but all kinds of other peripherals. However, what does seem apparent is that people feel positive that COVID-19 won’t have a long-lasting impact on how they travel. In fact, the percentage of those who believe that travel will resume to how it was before the pandemic has gone from 55% to 70%. This trend, while positive, is still a clear indicator that there is a reduction in public transport usage and that the viability of such services will need to be addressed by policy makers and operators. Extra precautions in the form of mask wearing, and while not lawfully enforceable, should be encouraged by policy makers and operators. Nobody likes being forced into any type of scenario, and thus perhaps signage, text messages and other avenues of communication can be used to simply suggest the idea of general public mask coverage. The public’s safety concerns will also need to be addressed in the form of increased cleaning and the availability of hand sanitiser, with more than half of those surveyed saying these steps will remain important after restrictions are lifted. 

There also appears to be a strong inclination from the public to maintain the positive environmental outcomes that have been availed over the course of the pandemic, even though it will come at a financial cost. About 50% of the UK’s public is behind the implementation of long-term plans to protect the environment, lower the extent of pollution and reduce the UK’s carbon footprint, even if it means that commuters will end up paying more for the cost of transportation. The question that then arises is, how will national and local government expedite environmental initiatives such as ultra-low emission zones all over the UK? Another issue that will need addressing is the change in modes of transport. In recent times cycling and walking have taken precedence while new ways to getting around have also come to the fore, such as e-scooters. The public’s thirst for more environmentally sound ways to move about means that the time is ripe to nurture this need and speed matters toward Net Zero targets. The technology and demand exist; the public needs clear leadership and the tools to help them make informed decisions.  

While the public at large expects to transition back to normalcy once the pandemic is over, COVID-19 has changed travel behaviour and instilled flexibility. As a result, young people are more prone to jobs that will allow them at least one day of remote work, and this is applicable to 59% of those between the ages of 18 and 34, and 41% for those over the age of 55. More than half of people would like to conduct their job from the comfort of their home once a week once the pandemic is completely over. This type of flexibility demands flexible travelling solutions. Over half of those surveyed indicated a tendency towards the use of contactless payments while 35% leaned towards regular off-peak discounted ticket prices.  The transport sector now needs to figure out how it will action such needs in a timeous manner. One thing they can do in the immediate future is to encourage the usage of masks. Combined with contactless payment options, mask wearing can alleviate the anxiety and the real threat of disease in the foreseeable future as people strive to get back what could be considered normalcy.