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Already Ubiquitous, Face Masks Become the Symbol of Vietnam's 'New Normal'

What image will come to mind when you look back on 2020?

In the wake of the novel coronavirus, "the surgical face mask has become a symbol of our times," the world over. Saigoneers are used to wearing face masks as protection from the elements, and the COVID-19 pandemic has given new reason, new pressure, and new ways to guard against the viral disease.

The faces of Saigon's residents have, in the vast majority, been concealed for a long time. While Vietnam's social distancing order was relaxed on April 23, mask-wearing continues to be mandatory in public spaces. During the early days of the presence of COVID-19 in Vietnam, a new type of face-covering emerged: a hat with an attached plastic visor. Its medical use in disease prevention is dubious, but its cultural role is in congruence with other forms of personal protection equipment (PPE). With the visor-hat, you can buy a little peace of mind and participate in civic responsibility by covering up. 

Other parts of the world, not so used to wearing masks, are catching up. In America, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have officially recommended the use of cloth face coverings in public settings. In similar moves, Germany's disease control agency has urged the public to use homemade face masks, and the French Academy of Medicine has suggested that wearing a mask should be obligatory for anyone leaving their homes during lockdown.

Across the globe, the public use of PPE of some sort has generally been accepted as a necessary measure to, at the least, flatten the curve. Face coverings are being jerry-rigged from bandanas, T-shirts, rubber bands and hair-ties in countries that do not have the wide and plentiful range of masks available in Vietnam. The US Surgeon General, Dr. Jerome Adams, awkwardly upbeat and likely not used to making crafty YouTube tutorials, can tell you how to make one out of a strip of an old T-shirt and two rubber bands. "Fold it to the middle from the bottom, fold it to the middle from the top, fold it again to the middle from the bottom and again from the top..." he continues and concludes with arms outstretched amiably and a final statement: "It's that easy." 

It's not just the US surgeon general getting on board with face covering. Prominent symbols of our cultures around the world have had their faces masked in a confusing, sobering and quirky gesture. A statue of Confucius in Taiwan, the Fearless Girl at the New York Stock Exchange, a statue of Saint Francis in Italy and Belgian chocolate Easter bunnies, among others, are all wearing masks. Globally, we seem to have come to a consensus on the necessity of masks for public use. The west can be seen edging closer to a more Asian perception of mask-wearing as an act of "mutual obligation and civic duty." 

The Fearless Girl statue outside the New York Stock Exchange. Photo: Kevin Hagen/AP.

Belgian artisan chocolate maker Genevieve Trepant poses with a chocolate Easter bunny wearing a protective mask at her workshop, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Lonzee, Belgium. Photo: REUTERS/Yves Herman.

A statue of Confucius by Taiwanese sculptor Lin Hsin-lai, in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan. Photo: Sam Yeh/AFP.

Mask history, culture and differing perceptions

The medical anthropologist Christos Lynteris gives an illuminating look into the history and meaning behind face masks in "Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Protection Equipment." Eerily, the article, written in 2018, discusses the usage of masks in the "coming plague" and "the next pandemic." "Anti-epidemic masks," as we know them today, were invented in China during the Manchurian pneumonic plague of 1910 by Wu Lien-teh, a Cambridge-educated Chinese doctor from British Malaya.

Lien-teh, who was overseeing the efforts to stem the outbreak of the virus, had found that the disease wasn't being spread by rats, as was commonly considered to be the case, but was an airborne illness. In an attempt to contain the spread, he adapted existing surgeon's masks into easy-to-wear protective devices and ordered doctors, nurses, sanitary staff, patients and their immediate contacts to wear them. Already having shown their important place in the medical field in 1910, face masks were widely used during the 1918 flu pandemic. The widespread use of face masks for personal antiviral protection in Asia was adopted during the 2002 SARS epidemic.

“Wearing anti-plague masks, front and side views,” Manchurian Plague Prevention Service (Harbin), Early photos of pneumonic plague epidemics, 1910-11 and 1920-21, Manchuria [U 614.42518 M26 e]. Photo via The University of Hong Kong Libraries.

Lynteris analyses the mask as not only an object used for disease prevention but something more subtle; he establishes its shifting position as a tool, an icon and at the threshold of humanity's "scientifically driven fight against invisible forces of existential risk." The dreariness of accepting yourself and others as vectors of contagion can be dampened by donning the "mask of reason" transforming not only yourself, but the society that embraces it and "its principles as a whole."

The personal protection equipment worn during the 1911 plague epidemic in Manchuria. Photo via Institut Pasteur/Archives Henri Mollaret.

In many Asian countries, wearing a mask has long been used and seen as a gesture that communicates not only solidarity in crisis, but further as "just the thing to do," a practice that has historically not been the case elsewhere. Connie Wang details the differing perceptions of masks in her article, "What it Means to Wear a Face Mask in America." Wherein Asia the mask is a commuter accessory and a gesture of good hygiene, in western countries, up until very recently, wearing a mask was seen as an "admission of disease, selfishness, stupidity, paranoia, gullibility, and greed."

Lynteris, speaking to Uri Friedman of the The Atlantic, explains that ever since SARS, westerners have associated mask-wearing with Asia broadly. The resulting stigmatization of masks then stems from xenophobic perceptions of Asia, and China particularly, as being "the origin of infectious diseases." Because of this, Asians wearing masks overseas are often met with racism, especially in the early months of this year. In February, an Asian woman wearing a mask on a New York City subway was attacked by a man who called her a "diseased bitch," in only one of many racist attacks on Asians. It has taken a health crisis larger than any in living memory to haltingly lessen this stigma of masks in the west and turn the public of these countries towards their use. 

Pre-pandemic face masks in Vietnam

Pre-pandemic, the two most significant irritants one would seek to avoid in Vietnam with face masks were UV-rays and air-pollution. Similar to most products in Vietnam, there is a wide, varying, and colorful collection of face coverings to choose from with price points at both ends of the spectrum. You can buy cloth patterned masks with a variety of patterns; Doraemon, Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty, stripes, checkers, polka dots and a variety of florals can be found patterned on masks. The masks available take many shapes and styles; mini for the babies, those that are curved upward along the bridge of the nose, those in the form of a large rectangle with elephant-like ear flaps big enough to stick into your helmet, the surgical face mask easily purchasable at your local convenience store and those worn by the "street ninjas" which are part mask, part hat and part hood.

Seeing as Vietnam often experiences days with a UV index of 11 or above, capable of burning the skin or eyes within 10 minutes of exposure, it is easy to see the head-to-toe covering outfits donned by commuters as more sensible than outlandish. While the "ninja-style" coverings can shield you from the sun, they provide little protection against Saigon's worsening pollution. To protect yourself from this pollution, you need to get into the more expensive realm and get your hands on an all-too-precious, but accessible in Vietnam, N95 mask, which blocks 95% of very small (0.3 micron) test particles.

Increasing demand and production of masks

An increase in demand for masks in Vietnam coincided with the emergence of the pandemic. It was just after Tết when concerns over the novel coronavirus began in Vietnam, and with it a sharp increase in mask sales, production and price gouging. 

On February 16, hundreds of people lined up to buy medical face masks from a pharmaceutical equipment store in District 10 of Saigon. The store had announced that they would sell 1,000 boxes of three-layered medical masks at 7:30am. Each customer would be allowed to buy two boxes filled with 50 medical masks at VND37,500 per box. Some had arrived as early as 2am to wait for the sale and, by 8am, just half an hour after opening, they were sold out. Many waiting customers had to turn away, disappointed.

These boxes of masks were a serious bargain, as many shops sell high-quality face masks for around VND40,000 each, and American-made masks costing up to VND100,000. Pham Khanh, who went to purchase the masks, told VietnamNet: "I wonder how many people in the queue are in real need of face masks and how many just want to buy face masks at cheap prices to resell them." Some face mask manufacturers have been frustrated by shops and pharmacies that they supply their product to at regular prices overcharging customers. 

Vietnam was quick to meet the increased demand for masks with increased production. Grocery stores and e-commerce sites have been working with suppliers to increase their supplies, and apparel companies have rushed to meet demand by participating in the effort. Acts of kindness and goodwill can be seen as well, with Vietnam donating 550,000 Vietnamese-made antibacterial face masks to five European countries hit hardest by the coronavirus.

In Hanoi, Le Thi Tham, the owner of a raincoat factory, has been using her facility to produce face masks that she is offering to local citizens for free. Tham's company produces 3,000 masks per day. In Saigon, a group of young people gave away thousands of masks they had purchased to the public for free from Mien Dong bus station in Binh Thanh District, with the purpose of helping those who couldn't afford masks. Giang Thi Kim Cuc stated on distributing the masks: "I want to do something by giving the items [masks] for free to make people feel calm." Calm, what a gift.  

Mask producers have also made efforts towards environmentally-friendly innovation and fashion in Vietnam. A Saigon-based company boasts the world's first face mask made from coffee, which is washable and reusable with a filter that can be replaced after 30 days of use. The outer layer of the antibacterial mask is made from coffee yarn sourced in Taiwan, and the inner layer is a biodegradable coffee filter made with coffee from suppliers in Tay Nguyen and Dak Lak. Thanh Le, the founder of the company which has previously produced "coffee shoes," explained via email that the filter of the mask smells like cà phê sữa đá, a scent that is both "addictive and relaxing." In a nod towards the intricate and boutique, a store located in District 1 is making washable linen and cotton hand-embroidered floral face masks which, according to the brand, are "as sweet as walking through a field."

Saigon-based streetwear brand Headless is also getting into the mask production game. Quang Minh, the founder of Headless, told Saigoneer over Facebook messenger that he came up with the design for his masks, which feature two layers connected with velcro and lacing, when he saw a woman riding her motorbike wearing two masks for extra protection. In another iteration, the hat and helmet company Non Son started making a variety of styles of masks since the outbreak of the coronavirus, the oddest of which is made out of leather. 

The most prominent new addition on Vietnam's PPE scene is the hat with an attached plastic visor. Is it goofy? Is it fashion? Does it do anything? The answers to these questions are arguably: yes, maybe, and maybe a little bit.

A video posted by VnExpress in March shows Saigon residents purchasing the visor-hats from a seller in District 10. The hat-seller, Ngo Thanh Tung, told the reporters, "This hat cannot prevent the virus 100%, but it may help us to limit getting saliva droplets when talking to each other." In the video, a young boy, wearing a cloth Spiderman face mask, gets a Captain America baseball cap placed on his head, the attached plastic visor carefully pushed down over his face. A customer, Nguyen Huynh, who was buying the hats for his two children said: "In my opinion, this is exactly what's called buying peace of mind." At the least, as he offers up somberly, it will stop his children from touching their eyes. If you can afford it, why not buy whatever little peace of mind you can find?

The visor-hats are generally priced above VND100,000 and are available for purchase at street vendors and on e-commerce sites. Vietnam News reported that some grocery stores have sold up to 20,000 hats per week, and a seller on social media said that he had been selling 5,000 each day. They have even become popular with celebrities, like the models Khanh Van and Diep Bao Ngoc, who have shared images of themselves on social media both wearing masks and black bucket hats with attached face-shielding visors. 

When it comes to what you are buying when you buy one of these visor hats, it is doubtful that you are buying much other than some feeble viral-protection, a sense of due diligence, and pandemic chic. According to Truong Huu Khanh, head of the Infection Department at Ho Chi Minh City's Children's Hospital No. 1, the visor hats are of little use to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He urged: "Those hats with transparent plastic pads are not resistant to viruses, bacteria, and nCoV. The similar-looking hats worn by health staff are made to medical standards."

Masks moving into the new normal

Vietnam's exemplary effort in fighting the coronavirus has had a few bumps related to masks in the early months of the year. In February, the Hanoi Market Surveillance Agency found that Viet Ham Co., Ltd, which had registered as a printer and napkin producer, as opposed to a medical equipment producer as they should have, was replacing the antibacterial layer used in surgical masks with toilet paper. In April, a man in Can Tho who was described as "intoxicated, [and] topless" was arrested for punching a policeman who asked him to wear a mask. In March, 2,482 citizens were penalized for failing to wear masks in public in Saigon.

Careful surveyors of Vietnam shouldn't be surprised by how well the country has, so far, implemented successful measures against the spread of COVID-19, as it was the first country to be removed from the WHO's list of countries with "local transmission of SARS" in 2003. The WHO praised Vietnam for having "conscientiously implemented detection and protection measures" which included the prompt identification of people with SARS and everyone they came in contact with, effective isolation measures, careful protection of medical staff, screenings of international travelers and effective communication with other authorities and governments. Vietnam's response to SARS sounds not dissimilar to actions taken during the current pandemic. Masks were there then, and they're here now, playing their role in disease prevention as we trudge along hoping for a future where even the most meaningful or mindless of activities can be done without being tinged as "amid a pandemic."

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