22 July 2020

Shakira Hussein and Scheherazade Bloul: “Medical face masks have become a signifier of East Asian identity and as Sinophobia rose along with the COVID 19 death toll, those wearing them were singled out for racist abuse and harassment. We suggest that the institutional scepticism and community hostility towards facial covering mirror the moral panic generated by the ‘burqa ban’ debates which located face-coverings as emblems in a civilisational conflict during the decade preceding the pandemic. … Just as visibly Muslim women were vilified as carriers of terrorism, people of East Asian appearance are now scapegoated as carriers of the so-called ‘Chinese virus.’ … In East Asia, face masks are regarded as hallmarks of courtesy and good manners — long stereotyped as ‘Asian values’ in contrast to the supposed ‘Western values’ of individual choice and liberty. Masks are fast acquiring similar connotations of empathy and care in other communities as well, as societies adjust to the no-longer-new normal of the pandemic. The true ‘clash’ has always been within rather than between civilisations — but never more so than now. It remains clear, however, that much of the discourse around face covering is much more concerned with the colour of the face beneath the mask than with the mask itself.”