According to an article in the April 3 issue of Nature Report, a team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong has shown that wearing surgical masks significantly reduces the risk of transmitting the coronavirus by coughing or simple breathing. On the same day that article appeared, the National Academy of Medicine in France recommended that the wearing of the “general public” or “alternative” mask be made compulsory for necessary outings during confinement. If France acts on these two recommendations, it will mean a real revolution in norms governing behavior in its public space.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the French government declared that surgical masks should be reserved for hospital staff, adding that they were of less value to the general public than such “barrier gestures” as washing hands or coughing in elbows. That position held firm despite the warnings of Asian health officials, including George Gao, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and Gabriel Leung, dean of the Hong Kong Faculty of Medicine, who had long been saying that European and American reluctance to champion wider use of masks was a mistake.
The French position on masks is due not only to a shortage of equipment resulting from cuts in funding for disease preparation. It also stems from the time-honored republican view of the public realm as an egalitarian space in which modern citizens presents themselves with their faces uncovered. Enshrined by the French Revolution, the Enlightenment shibboleth against masking took direct aim at a practice that was ostentatiously affected in the courts and salons of the aristocracy. The anti-masking norm was strengthened even further by colonial authorities of the Third and Fourth Republic, who, as historian Joan W. Scott recalls in Politics of the Veil, sought to bring an end to the wearing of veils in public among their Muslim female subjects in North Africa. Uniting the republican ideals of égalité and laïcité, the prohibition has become even more restrictive during the past twenty years, with the National Assembly’s 2004 ban on the Islamic headscarf in public schools provoking loud objections throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds. In France, wearing a piece of cloth over one’s face is seen as a sign of archaism and domination; showing up with your face uncovered is a sign of modernity and liberation.
By contrast, throughout much of Asia, the mask has established itself is a sign of modernity. Indeed, not wearing one is perceived as a retrograde archaism. Anthropologist Christos Lynteris has explained (most recently in the New York Times) that the surgical mask invented in Europe was introduced in China in 1910 by Wu Lian-The, a Chinese doctor born in Malaysia and educated at Cambridge University. Dr. Wu showed that the pneumonic plague that raged throughout Manchuria was transmitted by air, and he recommended that nurses and patients wear masks. His European and Japanese colleagues were skeptical until they were confronted by death of a French doctor who had treated his patients without wearing a mask. The photographs of Chinese doctors wearing masks circulated around the world, and led to the adoption of the mask by American doctors during the influenza pandemic of 1918. The wearing of masks was then abandoned in the West while it was prescribed by the first president of the Republic of China, Sun Yat-Sen, trained in medicine at the University of Hong Kong, and later by Mao Zedong, during the Korean War.
During the SARS crisis in 2003, the wearing of masks was mandated first in Hong Kong and soon throughout China. It is estimated that 90 percent of Hong Kong’s population wore it at the peak of the epidemic. The mask was intended not to protect against this new respiratory disease but to protect others from those who detected symptoms in themselves. It became a sign of collective solidarity and ecological mobilization in a society very aware of the risks of accelerated economic development, whether it be emerging diseases or air pollution. By contrast, the Chinese who did not wear masks and spat on the ground were perceived by Hong Kong citizens as relics of what Europeans in the nineteenth century called “the sick man of Asia.”
So what does all of this mean for France today? If the French people begin to wear masks to limit the transmission of the corona virus and support a gradual easing of social distancing restrictions, will that mean they have adopted the model of Chinese modernity and discarded that of the European Enlightenment? Not really. We must be wary of viewing the use of masks in terms of culture or civilization, but instead try to see it as what the philosopher Etienne Balibar (in Violence and Civility) calls a revolution in civility. Wearing the mask will mean that the COVID crisis marked our bodies and minds as the SARS crisis has marked those of the Asian populations. It will mean a loss of innocence similar to that which AIDS brought to romantic relationships. We will wear masks in memory of the victims of COVID to protect the population from a new disease that affects us in common. It will be a sign not of religion or community threatening secularism but of collective solidarity upholding the public good.
The original French version appeared in the April 7 issue of Le Monde.