The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention admitted in an announcement Friday that cloth masks do not protect against the coronavirus as effectively as surgical masks or respirators.
In East Asia, such a statement would not be necessary because it is already widely known.
The region’s customs of wearing masks vary as each country has responded to different epidemiological and environmental threats over the years. But that much is clear: Surgical masks have generally been the face covering of choice for the public for protection against all kinds of epidemics, allergies and pollution.
They’ve also been the go-to mask for those who cover their faces in public, as a courtesy, to keep others from catching their sniffing.
In Hong Kong, surgical masks were common during the SARS epidemic of 2002-2003 and were widely worn in public during the current pandemic. Official government guidelines in the Chinese territory recommend surgical masks and do not even mention cloth masks.
In mainland China, a spring 2020 survey of mask wearers who were not health professionals found that nearly 94 percent of them wore the disposable variant. Only 8.5 percent of them reported wearing cloth masks, according to the survey, which was conducted by researchers at universities in China and the United States.
In South Korea, the mask of choice is a KF-94, the local equivalent of the N95 respirator.
In early 2020, the government encouraged citizens to wear cloth masks instead due to a shortage of breathing equipment, said Jaehwan Hyun, a history professor at South Korea’s Pusan National University who has studied the history of masks in the country. But after a public outcry, the Korean Medical Association said only ventilators were effective.
“It’s impossible to see people in cloth masks here,” Professor Hyun said. The rare exception, he added, would be people demonstrating their opposition to disposable masks for environmental reasons.
In Japan, there is no official requirement for people to wear surgical masks, said Tomohisa Sumida, a visiting researcher at Keio University.
“Still, most people learn that surgical masks are better and continue to wear masks even outdoors,” he said, adding that the government is recommending “non-woven” masks.
In the spring of 2020, the government of former President Shinzo Abe distributed washable cloth face coverings, known as ‘Abenomasks’, to millions of residents. But the masks were very unpopular, in part because people preferred surgical ones.
At the end of October, more than 81 million of the masks were still in storage. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said in December he had ordered officials to try and distribute them to those in need — and if not, destroy them by March.