A Tales of Two Masks

May 01, 2020

Highlight

City-wide quarantine, school closure, and smoggy air are plaguing many Asian cities, prompting citizens to hide behind the comfort of protective masks. This confluence of paranoia is disrupting the retail and tourism industries in a major way.

Globally, first quarter 2020 has been marred by the Covid-19 outbreak,now officially deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization. From cities like Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the virus, to countries like Italy and Iran, where major quarantine efforts and sweeping closures are locking down entire countries, the effects of Covid-19 are climbing well beyond a simple health scare and are severely disrupting the daily lives of people around the globe. Minute by minute, more cases of Covid-19 infection send shockwaves through communities, cities, and countries, causing ripples of uncertainty and panic among those in risk of infection.

Alas, Covid-19 is not the only hovering threat that is causing social panic. In many major Asian cities, urbanites are often swapping out their hygienic mask for a fine particle mask as PM2.5 pollution looms overhead. Smoggy, gloomy skies blanket cities in a disappointing haze, causing frustrations to mount as urban dwellers are forced indoors without much promise for meaningful change to their environment.

From Indignation to Fear

As Covid-19 spreads, global citizens, particularly in the United States, Europe, and Asia, are refreshing their social media feeds minute by minute as governments continue to make sweeping bans of large gatherings or closing schools and other public facilities. Some think these measures are too extreme and disobey protocols, others clamor for more safety restrictions. Pundits and perceived authorities spar over the true nature of Covid-19 and speculate the true intentions behind these policies. Digital airwaves are clogged with frantic people confused about the future of their safety and what restrictions they face. They share misinformation and create conspiracy theories. Others worry about their family’s safety, the safety of their own jobs, and their ability to protect themselves. No one truly understands what is happening to and around them.

In the US, the NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons along with many major European sports leagues such as La Liga in Spain and Serie A in Italy; how the International Olympic Committee handles the Tokyo Games remains to be seen. It is estimated that 470 million children are being kept home from schools, mostly in China and more recently the United States. Essentials like toilet paper and dried pasta are held at the same value as gold.

To some westerners, the unfamiliar turf they are forced to navigate exacerbates this pandemonium. For most in major Asian cities, this is treaded land. Many countries like China, Thailand, Singapore, and Vietnam have experience from the SARS outbreak in 2003, and from governments down to average citizens, everyone is taking serious precautions, thus containing the outbreak far better than their western counterparts.

South Korea began creating test kits for Covid-19 in January and is now administering 10,000 tests per day, free of charge. Conversely, in the United States, only 75,000 test kits were available for the whole nation as of March 9th, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and come at a cost. This means that the number of infected Americans is likely significantly higher than reported. For most Americans, a dearth of proper medical care is completely foreign, which adds to their panic.   


Hazy Skies Becoming Normal 

While Covid-19 dominates headlines and is on top of people’s minds, many in Asian cities are reminded daily that even without the virus they need to take health and safety precautions. In Thailand alone, extreme pollution has caused multiple school closures since the onset of 2020, while Chiang Mai continually tops the list of worst air pollution in the world. Unlike Covid-19, this is a cyclical, human-made problem that occurs year after year, with seemingly no efforts for correction despite clear, avoidable causes.   

Thailand joins other polluted nations like China and India on a list of countries notoriously unsafe air. While in China, direct criticism of government policies may be censored or illegal, data scientists have drawn direct correlations between rising air pollution and discontent from Chinese social media users, thus assuming a large demand for change. The biggest hurdle faced by citizens demanding meaningful change is that there is little an individual can do to make a difference; their future is out of their hands. Frustrations soon morph into defeatism, as these unsustainable and unhealthy conditions become depressingly normal.   

This disappointing reality raises significant concerns for citizens of polluted cities. Over-exposure to PM2.5 pollution is proven to cause long-term effects on lung and respiratory functions, forcing citizens to make calculated changes to their daily routines to avoid exposure. On top of that, many worry about the health and safety of their families and consider uprooting completely to somewhere safer. Yet, those drastic options aren’t available to all, particularly low-income earners who find their work disrupted by cancelations and closures. Already they struggle to afford quality fine particle masks or air filters, and now they struggle to take home basic wages. The future of their health and wellbeing is as hazy as the sky they live under.   

Confluence of Concerns

Visit any public shopping center, if you are feeling risky, and you will experience something unusual. Stores and common spaces have little foot traffic, yet shelves are empty. Shoppers are not window shopping or strolling aimlessly, but rather making direct descents on supermarkets and pharmacies to stock up on food essentials and health care items, much to the dismay of local merchants struggling to make ends meet.  Previously bustling areas are now vacant and its unclear if the cause if from pollution or from the virus.   

Either way, there is a palpable fear of being in public and risking one’s health for non-essential reasons, and the two main culprits remain at large with no clear sign of slowing down. It’s a harrowing feeling not knowing what the future holds for your health and safety, when even something as basic as the air you breathe is not entirely safe. 

What to Look Out For? 

  • Revolutionizing digital education
  • Location-independent workforce
  • Lasting improvements to how people approach their health
  • Salary and benefit guarantees for low income workers in times of crisis
  • Changes in child rearing practices
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