We Will Only Break Through Together

Wearing masks is polarizing now. Here’s the experience that changed my attitude about mask wearing while I lived in Taiwan.

During the 10 years I lived in Taiwan, I learned a lot of things that surprised me. One that’s applicable to our lives now is that wearing masks can become a normal, accepted part of life. The thing about wearing a mask, and what helped me be comfortable with it, is that it’s really about others rather than about you.

This was really impressed on me was when my younger son was hospitalized with the H1N1 flu. He went from being a kid with a light fever to a very sick little boy in a short time. We were taking him to our family doctor’s office (for the second time that day) when he had a seizure. Holding him while he seized was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. The doctor was great and got him stabilized, then sent us off to the hospital.

In the ER my son tested positive for H1N1 and was admitted. (The quality of the care he received in the nationalized healthcare system was amazing, but a topic for a different post.) The morning after he was admitted a nurse woke me up to check in and then she handed me a mask. I was surprised, and asked her why. “You’ve probably already been exposed, so it’s important for everyone around you that you wear a mask.”

I’ll admit that I had never thought about diseases in that way. My concern was always for myself and my immediate family, and less for the nebulous “others out there.” Yet in Taiwan I saw over and over again how wearing a mask to protect the people around you was normal and encouraged. Once I understood this my attitude completely changed.

Have the sniffles? On with the mask until they are gone. Visiting an older relative? Put on the mask. As a teacher I appreciated that wearing a mask helped to keep the kids in my classes from getting too close (and this meant I tended to get sick less). On the subway or the bus when I saw someone wearing a mask my immediate reaction was gratitude. That person is taking care of me by wearing a mask.

Wearing a mask puts your community above your own needs. It’s natural that this became a common practice in East Asia because family and community are so important there. For people in the US, the emphasis seems to be on personal liberty and freedom. This is a striking difference in many ways (again, a topic for another post), but during this pandemic we Americans need to learn from the Asians. The only way for the pandemic to ease, for infections and deaths to go down, is if we take care of one another. Wearing masks and social distancing are the two easiest ways to do that. Simply wearing a mask sends a signal that you care about the people around you.

In the early days of the pandemic there were many messages going around that masks don’t protect you from the virus. If you look at the data, that’s probably a true statement. Cloth masks are not a completely effective defense against airborne viruses. What a simple cloth mask will do with great efficiency is stop you from spreading disease.

We can beat this together. We just need to put our community first, our neighbors first, our family first. It’s the only and best way to break through this pandemic. We can do it. And we’ll come out stronger on the other side if we do.