I lived and taught English in Asia before the pandemic started. I had a face mask, I used it when I felt sick, and to avoid pollution. It was just normal. My experience was not isolated. Countries like Japan have over 100 years of history with facemasks (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021).
With the normalization of facemasks in South Africa, climate change and protest culture in full swing, people will start to use facemasks normally for the same reason people in the east have for generations (Zhang et al., 2022):
✔ To stop the spread of disease,
✔ Protect your skin from sun exposure,
✔ To avoid pollution,
✔ & Make you feel anonymous.
Japan In The 1920s
Wearing a mask can be traced back before the 20th century, but something changed during the Spanish influenza that rocked the Japan and the world (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021).
In 1918 San Francisco had successfully pushed back the pandemic by using masks, so Japan copied them. It was a strategy Japan often used, and it worked. Doctors were asked to encourage people to wear masks in hospitals, on trains & trams, and in other crowded areas. Free masks were given out and people liked them (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021).
After the pandemic ended, people in the west went back to normal, but masks stayed in the east long after the pandemic ended.
100 Years Later: 2020s Japan
It’s an everyday item now days. With a massive ageing population, it’s how people symbolise their love and care for vulnerable family members when flu season comes around (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021). It’s how employees prevent sick leave and contribute to their national economy (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021).
They see it as being a good family member, neighbour and citizen (Anyiam-Osigwe, & Schmitz, 2021).
Should South Africans Should Copy Japan?
If we’re realistic, wearing a mask was never ‘popular’ during the pandemic. South Africans just don’t like being told what to do.
But like it or not, the science is in, and wearing a mask is a great tool to fight back against infectious diseases. Something that will only become more common with climate change.
Here you can see the number of flu infections in the United States. The arrow points to before and after mask mandates went into effect. Although this study was done in the USA, we can use their results to better understand what is happening in South Africa.
Wearing A Mask Worked
Not only did we prevent a lot of COVID infections (Rahman et al., 2022), but we effectively skipped Flu season for almost 2 years.
Studies have shown that even if just 35% of people wear a mask, influenza infections (the virus that causes the flu) dropped by 45% (Froese, & Prempeh, 2022). But mask wearing is high (over 60%) Froese, and Prempeh (2022) study found that we would be able to stop a flu wave.
So if you’re a small business owner and want to prevent the flu sweeping across your office or simply want to cut down on sick leave, why not copy the Japanese and ask those with mild flu symptoms to wear a mask? They all own one already anyway.
I know that’s a bit of a shocking statement, but it’s true. South Africa has the highest percentage of elderly people in Africa at 8.7%.
Plus, the number of people over 60 is only expected to increase, going from 4.1 million in 2011 to over 15 million by 2030 (Kelly et al., 2019).
So what’s my point? We all have someone close to us that’s over 60 and beyond COVID, things like the flu or RSV can really hurt them. A lot of people in Japan said they wear a mask to prevent getting ill and infecting a vulnerable family member.
If there’s someone close to you that’s at risk of a bad infection – mask wearing may be the kindest thing you could do when flu season starts back up again.
South Africa Has An Ageing Population
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