A few months ago, some of my fellow United Nations interns and I enjoyed a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant in the East Village neighbourhood of Manhattan, New York City. The very next day, a woman wearing a yellow face mask—the kind now commonly worn to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus—was allegedly called “diseased” and physically attacked by a man at the Grand Street Subway station,1 not far from where we had dined. The virus doesn’t discriminate, but antagonism against people thought to have the virus seemed to be escalating. Strikingly, I found that many hate crimes occurring worldwide were being committed against people wearing masks.

My home country, the Republic of Korea, was one of the first epicentres of the COVID-19 pandemic, followed by Italy, Spain and the United States. When the case counts exponentially soared there in late February 2020, my parents cried on the phone that they were relieved that I was in the United States. Masks, which were once very easy to find in Korea, were being worn compulsively by anyone needing to leave their homes, and in just a few weeks had thus become difficult to purchase. On a designated day each week, my parents had to stand in queue for hours to buy a mask, often only to find out that they were too late. On such occasions, they would inevitably have to wear the disposable masks they’d already worn for days, afraid that they would be stared at if they didn’t.

While the curve started to flatten in the Republic of Korea, the number of confirmed cases began to skyrocket in New York. My parents called again, this time urging me to put on a mask whenever I had to leave the house. But unlike back home, where disposable masks are normally sold in every pharmacy, I could not find a single mask in any of the well-known pharmacies in New York. Not only were masks uncommon in the United States, but many Asians wearing them were being wrongly identified as virus infectors. I was too afraid to stroll around the streets with a mask on and refused to do so. While the press in the United States announced that masks should only be worn by those who had symptoms, the public in my home country were baffled by the fact that many Westerners were busily heading to grocery stores without wearing masks at all.

Culture matters

In late January, the citizens of the cities of Asan, Jincheon and Icheon in the Republic of Korea finally decided to welcome its residents coming home from Wuhan, China, where the pandemic is thought to have begun, instead of opposing their entry. “If it is guaranteed that necessary preventive measures would be made, I’ll delightfully wish the best for their health. They weren’t in Wuhan [on] purpose”, citizens said.2 The Government continued to embrace Chinese entrants, explaining that border shutdowns not only have no practical benefits, but also among all confirmed patients in the country, very few were Chinese.3 Without the kind of strict cross-border restrictions and lockdowns that were imposed in other countries, the Republic of Korea was able to lower its infection rate by mid-March. This was made possible not only by the country’s well-founded health-care system, but also through extensive tracking and transparency. The movements of a confirmed patient could be retraced immediately so that the Government could test or quarantine all other contacted persons. Based on the data collected from surveillance camera footage and credit card usage, a COVID-19 patient’s movements could be recreated and delivered to people nearby via text message. Apps providing visual maps derived from the released information were also easily accessible.4

Although cross-border restrictions may exist, they should not divide our unity to fight this virus together.

The willingness and consent of the people of the Republic of Korea to sacrifice privacy rights in the interest of public safety and the resulting epidemiological survey conducted during the national emergency demonstrate the collectivist mindset inherent in the culture. The English word “conflict” comes from the Latin word confligere, which means “strike together” or “fight”. Conflicts are often compared to fire and referred to as something to be extinguished. The word “conflict” in Korean refers to a situation in which two different types of climbing plants that tend to twine in opposite directions are entangled.5 To solve such “conflicts”, it is important to “disentangle the skein of thread”. Thus, in the Republic of Korea, someone who has been confirmed to have COVID-19 is not seen as someone to cut off, but rather to disentangle as part of the whole. Exhaustive monitoring and publication of information, and not missing or excluding one single person, as in acupuncture, in which needles are inserted into the whole body for blood circulation, were crucial in the Korean perspective. In the same vein, each individual’s responsibility to wear masks to partake in protecting the whole society, including the vulnerable, was an obvious virtue in my country.

In the more individualistic Western countries, which are more familiar with surgery than acupuncture, containment strategies that include lockdowns are being extensively utilized. Along the same lines, in the United States, masks have traditionally been seen as a means to sort out the sick, or in some cases, even indicated that the wearer was a menacing person. As evident in the fact that many States and the European Union have a history of considering or actually enacting anti-mask laws for decades, the anxiety about face covering is prevalent in Western society. With this in mind, it is understandable that the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a month to rethink and eventually reverse its guidance on wearing masks to deal with the pandemic.

A bottle of hand sanitizer provided for public use, attached to a COVID-19 health advisory sign in the Republic of Korea. Photo provided by Tabitha Kwon.

Time for solidarity

Neither culture is superior; rather, they are complementary. Every culture has a vital role in defeating COVID-19 today. The term “social distancing” is being widely used these days; the practice is seen as key to slowing the spread of the virus and saving the vulnerable. As odd as this phrase seems, composed of two words of opposite meanings, it embraces both collectivism and individualism. It emphasizes that keeping physical distance for the sake of others is necessary amid the global pandemic.

All cultures are worthy of respect, and many cultures worldwide are changing and creating new phenomena, as we see in the decision by Germany to require mask usage outdoors. A day after Philadelphia’s transit authority announced a policy barring passengers without face coverings from using its services, however, a video of a man without a mask being forcibly dragged off of a city bus surfaced online. The video provoked outrage from many, while others argued that the police action was a necessary measure considering the global crisis. The transit authority later amended its policy, stating that face coverings were no longer mandatory, but recommended.6

People are bound to be confused in the midst of shifting cultural norms. Indeed, it stands to reason that people may feel anxious in such a state of uncertainty and change. However, with a better understanding of other cultures, perceptions and situations, humanity can overcome hatred and abandon the need to scapegoat. It is time for solidarity and global cooperation for world peace and well-being. Although cross-border restrictions may exist, they should not divide our unity to fight this virus together. For the sake of the most vulnerable, including the elderly among us, refugees in camps and the homeless in the streets, the international community should come together and demonstrate global citizenship to fight this virus in these unprecedented times. 

Notes

1 David K. Li, “Coronavirus hate attack: Woman in face mask allegedly assaulted by man who calls her ‘diseased’”, NBC News, 5 February 2020. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/coronavirus-hate-attack-woman-face-mask-allegedly-assaulted-man-who-n1130671.

2 Jong-gu Han, “’Please Make Yourself at Home,’ Asan Citizens’ Campaign on Social Media to Welcome Evacuees from Wuhan,” Yonhap News, 31 January, 2020. Available at https://www.yna.co.kr/view/AKR20200131072100063.

3 Sungmin Yoon, “‘This is not to please China:’ President Moon’s 5 reasons for not imposing travel ban on China,” Joongang Ilbo, 27 February 2020. Available at https://news.joins.com/article/23717377

4 Max Fisher and Sang-Hun Choe, “How South Korea Flattened the Curve,” New York Times, 23 March 2020. Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/23/world/asia/coronavirus-south-korea-flatten-curve.html.

5 Soo-Young Kwon, “[Reasons and Reflections] Why We Should Not Cut off Relationships, but Solve Conflicts,” The Kyunghyang Shinmun, 10 January 2020. Available at http://news.khan.co.kr/kh_news/khan_art_view.html?art_id=202001102101035

6 Cailtin O’Kane, “Philadelphia transit officials change policy on masks after video shows man being dragged off bus,” CBS News, 13 April 2020. Available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-philadelphia-bus-septa-face-mask-policy-video-shows-man-being-dragged-by-police/.

25 June 2020

The  UN Chronicle  is not an official record. The views expressed by individual authors, as well as the boundaries and names shown and the designations used in maps or articles, do not necessarily imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.