|Gwanghwamun Station on Seoul Metro Line 5 is crowded with people wearing face masks in this photo taken on Aug. 24, 2020, the first day the mask mandate was imposed across the city. Yonhap|
Some people won’t give up masks, even if pandemic wanes
By Lee Hyo-jin
It isn’t an exaggeration to say that face masks have become the new normal in Korea, as nearly two years have passed since they have become mandatory in public places amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the health crisis began, masks were mostly reserved for celebrities to hide their identity or as a fashion item, or worn in the spring during days of yellow dust or fine dust.
But now, the protective gear has evolved into a must-have item, changing its perceptions among Koreans.
However, as the country moves forward from the Omicron wave, whether to wear the masks is soon expected to become a matter of personal choice again, as the government is considering dropping the mandate.
As daily infection numbers are slowing down, the government is shifting its approach to pandemic-related restrictions, moving to a new way of living with the virus by treating it more like an endemic disease.
The authorities are set to remove limits on operation hours of multiuse facilities and attendance caps at private gatherings, in addition to mandatory face mask rules.
Nevertheless, not everyone seems ready to bid farewell to the masks. Some have discovered unexpected benefits of the protective equipment, while others are still wary of COVID-19 infection.
“At first it was uncomfortable, but now I’m used to wearing masks everywhere ― in the office, on public transports and at the gym. It would feel strange not covering my face in front of other people,” said Choi Young-kyung, a 28-year-old office worker in Seoul.
“And frankly speaking, I like it that I can hide half of my face when I speak with my superiors at work. They don’t seem to notice that I’m smiling only with my eyes, not with my mouth, a useful skill I’ve developed thanks to the mask.”
|Employees work at a face mask factory in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi Province, in this photo taken on March 6, 2020. Joint Press Corps|
Some are pledging to stick with the masks, as they have proven effective in preventing various other infectious diseases, not just the coronavirus.
“Before the pandemic, I frequently suffered from sore throat and runny nose. But I’ve never experienced cold-like symptoms during the last two years, which means that face masks are really effective in preventing other diseases,” said Lee Jae-gil, a 55-year-old restaurant owner in Seoul.
“So I’ll probably keep wearing them except during the hottest days in summer.”
Lingering concerns about the coronavirus are another reason for people to continue wearing masks for the foreseeable future. They feel uneasy that the government is drastically easing virus curbs just because the Omicron wave has passed its peak.
“With lectures switching offline and more gatherings being held at the university, I’m worried I might get the virus any time. Even if the mask mandate is lifted outdoors, I will keep on wearing them everywhere,” said a 22-year-old college student surnamed Lee who studies at Korea University.
Lim Myung-ho, a professor of psychology at Dankook University, viewed that even if the country moves away from mask mandates, and leaves it to individual choice, they won’t disappear soon.
“Before the health crisis, masks were perceived to be worn only by ill people or those who are overly concerned about their health. But now, it has become a useful way to hide our faces to avoid unwanted attention, and it has also become a sign of showing respect to others,” he said.
Lim explained that as it is very difficult to revert to earlier habits, it will take a fair amount of time for people to get used to face-to-face interactions in the post-pandemic era.
|Passengers on a bus in Seoul are seen wearing face masks due to concerns over COVID-19 infection in this photo taken on Jan. 25, 2020, before the mask mandate was implemented by the government. Korea Times photo by Wang Tae-suk|
Experts also noted that unlike some Western countries where mask mandates have led to protests among those who view it as violation of personal freedom, such debates did not take place here.
Koo Jeong-woo, a sociologist at Sungkyunkwan University, said this reflects the “collectivist nature” of Koreans.
“Koreans are not only used to adhering to rules set by the government, but they also fear standing out from the crowd. Even though wearing a mask isn’t obligatory outdoors if a two-meter distance is kept from others, everyone wears them, because they are concerned about the dirty looks they might get from others,” he said.
Koo also projected that even if mask rules are lifted, a majority of people will wear them in public places such as the subway and indoor gyms.
“Although face masks are a vital tool in preventing infections, it worries me that the negative impacts of face masks on the society have been overlooked. Having half our face hidden during conversations disrupts social interactions and ability to share emotions,” he said.